The Songbook Sessions - Ella Fitzgerald

When Jane Monheit’s The Songbook Sessions, Ella Fitzgerald landed on my doorstep with its super-glamorous cover photo of the leader and its ominously retro title, I cringed a bit. Monheit has been an imposing voice and canny leader since her emergence in the late 1990s, but she has always seemed like one of the new jazz singers who might be forever stuck in the past. This new recording looked, on the surface, like precisely that, a doubled-down dive into yesterday.

Don’t judge a book by its cover.

Monheit’s latest is a collaboration with trumpeter and producer Nicholas Payton, and it presents batch of tunes that Fitzgerald famously recorded. Unlike other “songbook” collections, however, this one seeks not to be a throwback. Instead, as Payton explains in his candid and colloquial liner notes, this project challenges both the songs and the singer to stand up to arrangement and ideas that are more forward-looking. Not that it’s a brash record, avant-garde or otherwise on some hip hop edge, but it is not what it would first appear to be.

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Best known as a jazz trumpeter, Nicholas Payton is out to break molds

If there’s a constant about Nicholas Payton, it’s that he’s always evolving. Payton, 42, is best known for playing trumpet, having burst onto the jazz scene a quarter century ago while still a teenager, as his fellow New Orleanian Wynton Marsalis had done a decade earlier.

When he performs two sets at Scullers on Saturday, however, Payton will be playing keyboards along with his trumpet — sometimes simultaneously. He may sing a bit too, having done so on “Y,” the penultimate track on his recent album “Letters.” Backing him will be bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Joe Dyson.

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Payton too hot; Wright the right stuff at jazz fest

Jazz thrives on accidents, the unpredictable. So it was Monday at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival.

Nicholas Payton, first show at Kilbourn Hall. Joey Alexander, the 12-year-old pianist who joins Chick Corea on Tuesday night at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre, and his family have seats in the third row.

The trumpeter surprises by coming out and settling in behind a grand piano and electric keyboards. A veritable bunker of sound, his short-brimmed, woven hat, the color of the couch in a smoking lounge, showing above the instruments. Accompanied by drums and double bass, he switches to trumpet midway through the first song, “A,” from his album Letters. Twenty-six songs, one for each letter of the alphabet. Payton holds one trumpet note for so long, it’s clear he has the lung capacity of a Solomon Islands pearl diver.

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Nicholas Payton trumpets an open-eared approach to music at Jazz Showcase

Musicians who reach a certain level of success or recognition often settle into a comfort zone, giving audiences exactly what they expect — and little more.

Not Nicholas Payton. The New Orleans musician, who was a standout trumpeter even as a teenager in the early 1990s, easily could have basked in the attention showered on him. Instead, he has pushed his art in every direction imaginable (and some unimagined), embracing classical, avant-funk, R&B and other far-flung musical impulses.

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TEXTURES - A new recording from Nicholas Payton


The new recording by NICHOLAS PAYTON to be Released June 17, 2016

All great art has a rhythm. Movement. A Pulse.  

Painting, Music, Dance, Martial Arts, Architecture, Sports. They all have, at their core, a rhythmic undertow.  

The strokes of a paint brush have a rhythm. They create patterns, lines, curves, shapes, forms, and ultimately a rhythmic flow. They create movement. Their movement create a feeling. Colors also create a rhythm. They make your eyes move from one component to another. They allow your mind to travel. To think. Ultimately a story is told. A feeling is created. A visual beat penetrates one's mind and soul.  

What happens when master artist Nicholas Payton is a part of the artistic process of painter Anastasia Pelias? Textures is born. As Nicholas told me, “They are off the cuff tracks done in real time with an artist who paints.”  Nicholas takes the strokes of Anastasia's brush and mirrors them with a beat. The visual beat becomes an aural beat. A pulse. A movement. The colors become harmonies. The strokes become rhythmic shifts. The two become synonymous with each other. 

As a listener, you find your own meaning. Every time you listen, a new layer of the story is unveiled. You start to get lost in the music. Have you ever just sat and watched the ocean? At first you see the sand, beach, and waves. Then, as your mind drifts, you start to see beyond the ocean.  You think about the depth of the ocean and its beauty. As the waves crash, one also begins to think of the past, present and future. No wave crashes the same place, or way, twice, yet each is perfect. Each has been here before, but returns in a whole new way.  It is brought to shore as it should. It flows perfectly, yet is never quite predictable. Each wave has its own direction, and its own identity. Textures does the same. You look out into the horizon and see where the sky meets the water. You begin to reflect on the beauty in the world. This is Textures. Movement of a rhythmic undertow (ocean/waves), with harmony and colors on top (the sky and world). 

Textures is a master work of art. Created by a master artist. In this case Nicholas Payton uses an instrument he has yet to use on record. As he told me “I set up my keyboard and laptop and Anastasia has a blank canvas and we create a new work in real time.” Nicholas' instrument here may appear to be a keyboard and laptop at first. But ultimately, his instrument is his mind and soul. Textures flows with perfect clarity, yet takes direction in ways one would not expect. The harmonies take shape in only the way Nicholas' mind can.  The three basic elements of the mind — intellect, feeling, and will — are displayed as Nicholas searches from within, and let's the music pour out of his body, and into our ears.  But once it hits our ears, we too, need to let it penetrate our hearts and soul, so that we can find ourselves. We can create our own work of art in our own mind.

Textures exudes compassion. It is radiating with boundless light and compassion. It makes you reflect within to find peace and love. 

Begin to let the music enter your body. It is music to relax and think to, music to reflect on, and music to dance to. 

Textures, like an any great art, is drenched with rhythm. It has movement. A Pulse. Listen, as I did, over and over again. Find new meaning each time you listen. Find your own rhythm.


All instruments performed by Nicholas Payton

Mixed by: Jehan Buhari and Tom Soares

Mastered by: Michael Fossenkemper

Artwork by: Anastasia Pelias

Cover by: Tom Seltzer, Seltzer Studios

Album Notes by: Alex Silverbook

LETTERS - A new recording from Nicholas Payton


The new recording by NICHOLAS PAYTON to be Released August 7, 2015

26 Tracks of Mastery on Full Display!

Being a pianist, I am fascinated in hearing how musicians whose primary instrument is not the piano, touch the keys. While there are seemingly no limits to the variety of sounds which can be achieved through the instrument, I've noticed that horn players, bassists, drummers and vocalists inevitably approach the piano with an unaffected kind of fresh take, untethered by constraints imposed by the ego of a self-claimed pianist.

With crystal clear articulation and a refreshingly welcoming economy of notes, Nicholas achieves such a warm, infectiously optimistic mood from the piano without broadcasting any sort of agenda to exhibit “pianism." And this lack of a projected impulse to affect a virtuosic front creates some of the most inviting piano I’ve heard in recent times.

The mutual respect within the band is abundantly apparent in every turn of phrase. Anyone who’s truly listening can sense that Nicholas, Vicente and Bill love playing together. This is an energetically engaged band. All three players are so versed in music that they share values and an unspoken attitude of zero jiveness or "show biz” trickery in their collective approaches.

This music is fertile and potent with emotion, and all the while the wide-ranging sweep of moods represented on these two discs is doing things to your ears and body, there is an ongoing dialogue in every moment for the intellectual seeker to feast on.

Nicholas’ piano playing reveals an unhampered approach to telling a story and connecting with the rhythm section organically rather than stacking upon them. This chemistry mirrors how much easier it becomes for humans to connect in substantial ways when egos are set aside with an intention to support and compliment one another. Nicholas’ piano playing speaks with the clarity of honesty and a noticeably selfless, organic vibe that I must say I’ve never quite heard or felt before.

There is a sonorous nature to the songs and intervals which cause a piece we’ve never previously heard to feel like a hip long-lost friend, like meeting someone and intuitively feeling so relaxed around them as though you’ve known them all your life.

~Benny Green, 2015