With Sonic Trance, Nicholas Payton lets slip from his head that heavy crown of Next Great New Orleans Jazz Trumpeter forever being handed out by nostalgic jazz pundits. Payton’s nuanced vocalizations, bravura emotionalism, and scorching virtuosity have placed him in royal company ever since his 1994 debut, From This Moment, which was compared to the work of such legendary horn men as Wynton Marsalis, Terence Blanchard, and even Louis Armstrong. And conservative critics were certainly pleased by the string of agreeable if listless straight-ahead albums the 30-year-old Crescent City native subsequently released on Verveincluding one with the venerable and seminal trumpeter Doc Cheatham.
But like Roy Hargrove and Christian McBride, other cats who’ve chafed at being lumped in the “young lions” den previously prowled by Marsalis and Blanchard, Payton has lately been acknowledging that he grew up with fusion and hiphop, not swing and bebop. Despite his dismal, Grammy-nominated Dear Louis, a scattershot 2001 tribute to Armstrong that sounded as if a some label suit had put a gun to Payton’s head and demanded mainstream fealty, the trumpeter has been stepping out a biton 1999’s ebullient and groove-oriented Nick @Night, as well as by leading (admittedly on the lowdown) the New Orleans-based combo Time Machine, with which he’s been tuning up his funk motor.
Now Payton has jumped to a new label and into new territory with Sonic Trance, a jazz-funk odyssey with a titillating veneer of electronica. The disc commences in epic style with “Praalude (Sonic Trance),” as Payton ominously intones the album title over and over while spacey keyboards swirl through a laid-back R&B groove and some punchy trumpet figures. The track promises the coming of something big and excitingyou can almost envision the opening credits to some Afro-futuristic flick starring Busta Rhymes or Kelis.
For the most part, Sonic Trance delivers, with flashy, state-of-the-art sound effects, beautifully interlocked syncopation, and boisterous ensemble playing that’s just barely restrained by gravity. Payton treats his trumpet to wah-wah pedals, a pitch shifter, and digital delays. Percussionist Daniel Sandownick makes use of everything from congas and steel drums to squeaky toys and whistles, and sampler Karriem Rigginswho’s played drums for Ray Brown and done killer production work for Slum Village and Dweleadds even more instrumental filigree. Meanwhile, keyboardist Kevin Hays’ retro-sounding Fender Rhodes and clavinet, Vicente Archer’s hearty upright bass, and Tim Warfield’s quizzical soprano and blustery tenor saxophones help balance out the flights of fancy.
Payton seems rejuvenated by it all, displaying a quirky sense of humor and an adventurous bent scarcely discernible in his previous persona. On the jovial ragamuffin cut “Shabba Un-Ranked,” he sends up dancehall toastmaster Shabba Ranks with nearly indecipherable babbling over a squishy rhythmic bed that hints at randy activity. With “Cannabis Leaf Rag 1,” Payton riffs on his neotraditionalist past, playing in unison with a scratchy copy of Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer” chopped up to sound like a Mario Brothers sequence. And the woozy “Two Mexicans on the Wall” finds Payton playing off, among other melodies, “One Hundred Bottles of Beer on the Wall,” attacking the tune with mariachi-band gusto and drunk-tank wooziness. Somehow, it works, even when Payton & Co. veer dangerously close to novelty-record territory.
At times, however, Payton’s newfound enthusiasm for gadgetryespecially the wah-wah pedalexceeds his mastery of it. Whereas his electrically enhanced trumpet cackles and slurs nicely on the hypnotic “Cannabis Leaf Rag 1,” his raucous wah-wah solo nearly destroys the otherwise intriguing “Fela 1,” an almost mystical piece on which Warfield (on soprano sax) turns in one of the disc’s most thoughtful passages. The track reveals that Payton is still a beginner on the plugged-in trumpet, uncertain of its nuances: His nonmelodic playing builds in a cycle of dynamics and tempo to no apparent climax. It’s like a dog chasing its tail.
Indeed, Payton still sounds most assured when he relies on the beautiful timbre of his natural soundas in the gorgeous “Séance (Romantic Reprise),” on which he builds brooding atmospherics from a simple, ascending motif nested amid Hays’ warm electric piano, Archer’s sensuous bass, and drummer Adonis Rose’s flinty cymbal and snare work. And if the midtempo postbop excursion “Blu Hays” sounds out of placeand rather indifferent, to bootit does boast Payton’s most cogent solo.
Payton is clearly still in transition from virtuoso purist to a less restrained, more hi-tech incarnation. Partly because he keeps reprising and re-interpreting cuts throughout the disc, Sonic Trance drags on much longer than it needs to. The album is also noticeably derivative in places, with Payton culling melodic and rhythmic ideas directly out of Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi and Miles Davis’ ’70s fusion songbooks without adding much in the way of inspiration. Still, it’s nice to see him earning his place in jazz history not merely by aping the past but also by wrestling with it. If Sonic Trance isn’t quite the breakthrough Payton had hoped for, it does announce the liberation of a fine young artist from the expectationsif not the influenceof others. CP
Payton performs Friday, Oct. 10, to Sunday, Oct. 12, at Blues Alley, 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Rear. For more information, call (202) 337-4141.