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.
In his blog writings, Payton has wholly rejected the term "jazz," preferring "BAM," an acronym for Black American Music. The term surely gets to the core of where jazz comes from.
But regardless of what you call the music that Payton plays, its sonic allure and sense of surprise make for deeply rewarding listening, as Payton reminded his audience Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase. Though his trio represents just a slender facet of his work, which ranges from original symphonic repertoire to computer-generated music, it offers a glimpse into the restless spirit underlying all of Payton's experimentation.
Not that the trio Payton brought to the Showcase — with bassist Vicente Archer and drummer Joe Dyson — sought to confound expectations simply for the sake of doing so. On the contrary, much of this music approached the ear quite gently. But it was Payton's method of interweaving multiple layers of sound that made the deepest impression.
As he has for the past several years, Payton played several roles on the bandstand: trumpeter, pianist, keyboardist, vocalist. In effect, Payton created a whirlwind of music, bassist Archer and drummer Dyson entering and exiting the fray at key junctures. And though Payton's early efforts at handling instruments besides the trumpet had seemed tentative, he has come a very long way.
He opened the evening, in fact, not by bringing the trumpet to his lips but by placing his fingers on the piano, articulating lush chords and gorgeously voiced melodies in "A," the opening piece from his most recent album, "Letters." If you didn't already know of Payton's achievements as trumpeter, you would have assumed a seasoned pianist was at work, not on the basis of technical bravura but from the serene understatement of this solo.
When Payton turned to trumpet, he accompanied himself on Fender Rhodes keyboard, two strands of musical thought emanating from a single source. And, yes, at some moments Payton removed his left hand from the keyboard to focus on trumpet, firing off the clarion themes and virtuosic flights that long ago were his hallmark but now represent just one aspect of what he does.
As the evening progressed, Payton brought ever more subtle shadings into the mix, drawing fuzz tones from keyboard, pushing pitch expressively flat on trumpet in ballad passages, switching from one instrument to the next with increasing fluidity. At its essence, Payton's opening set was about color, the bandleader tapping the vast range of hues available to him from multiple sources, including Archer's fervently melodic bass work and Dyson's full-bodied statements on drums.
Some of the most affecting music emerged in "P," also from "Letters," and dedicated to Bud Powell. Considering Powell's stature as an innovative and influential pianist, Payton challenged himself not only by invoking the master's name but also by opening with an extended piano solo. The silvery figurations Payton articulated high up in the keyboard and the muted tone color he later produced on trumpet (without benefit of a mute) heightened the melancholy nature of the tune. Archer's beautifully shaped lines and Dyson's delicate brushwork underscored the point.
Payton's vocals, too, have shown increasing nuance and texture over time, as in his "Shades of Hue," from his "Bitches" album. The lyric writing may have leaned toward the simple, but the hushed intensity of Payton's expression told the story.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.
Tickets: $30-$45; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com
When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court