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.
“It’s essentially why I believe we’re here on this planet: to evolve,” Payton says of his transformation from what Christian McBride dubbed “young lions 2.0” — a post-Marsalis second wave of fresh-faced, tradition-oriented virtuosi that included Payton, McBride, and Roy Hargrove — to the multifaceted creator he is today. “Particularly for an artist, I think it’s imperative.”
Payton never liked the young lions designation. “I always shunned that terminology,” he explains. “Not to dissociate myself from my peers or the music, but to me the term ‘young lion’ connoted that you were somehow a flash in the pan, and that there was only interest here because you were young. And I didn’t see a lot of longevity there.”
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Another term Payton now rejects is “jazz,” preferring to call his work Black American Music, for reasons detailed in “On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore,” a 2011 blog post.
“It’s funny how things come full circle,” he says. “ ‘Jazz’ is really not something I initially liked.”
He means the word, not the music. Payton enjoyed the musicians he was exposed to by his bassist father, Walter Payton Jr., but he was more interested in Prince, Michael Jackson, and hip-hop. It wasn’t until he was 11 and working with a local brass band that he began to explore his dad’s record collection.
“Before then, I was listening to standard R&B and soul music and pop fare of any person my age,” he says. “I guess that’s where the term Black American Music is coming from, why the strong preference for that.”
He hinted at that inclination on his early albums, via covers of the Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round” and “Sun Goddess,” the Ramsey Lewis/Earth, Wind & Fire collaboration “That’s always been the thing for me,” Payton says, “though I was still calling it jazz at that time. But in my mind, the idea was to say that all of this black music is valid, and it’s all connected.”
Payton didn’t unveil his multi-instrumentalism on record until later, on the albums “Nick @ Night” and “Dear Louis,” his 2001 Louis Armstrong tribute. He began doubling on keyboards regularly in free midnight sessions at the New Orleans club Snug Harbor, staged to boost local morale after Hurricane Katrina.
But Payton had played more than trumpet all along, taking advantage of his father being a school band instructor to study other instruments. “I would stay after school in the band room, and that’s where I first learned how to play clarinet and saxophone and trumpet and trombone and tuba and flute and so forth.
“I really loved the movie and the music for ‘Purple Rain,’” he recalls, “so my parents bought me a piano book with all of the soundtrack written out, and I remember reading in the forward that Prince played 20 instruments. That really inspired me, and affirmed what I was actually doing, that someone I admired was a multi-instrumentalist.”
Payton barely plays trumpet on “Numbers,” the groove-oriented 2014 album he likens to Prince’s late-’80s jazz-oriented experiments. Horn and keyboards alike have leading roles on 2015’s “Letters.” On “Textures,” a collaboration with the visual artist Anastasia Pelias released last week, he limits himself to his laptop, his midi keyboard controller, and Apple Logic software.
Meanwhile, he’s got other irons in the fire. He leads a big band he calls his Television Studio Orchestra. He composed his “Black American Symphony,” which has been performed by three European orchestras but awaits an American presentation. He produced and blows trumpet on Jane Monheit’s new Ella Fitzgerald tribute, “The Songbook Sessions,” and is producing an album for the Trumpet Mafia, a band of 20-some trumpeters plus rhythm section.
‘It’s essentially why I believe we’re here on this planet: to evolve.’
His latest project, Afro-Caribbean Mixtape, has him backed by Archer, Dyson, keyboardist Kevin Hays, percussionist Daniel Sadownick, and DJ Lady Fingaz for what Payton calls “my most overt political statement.” There’s an album in the can featuring samples from black intellectuals and musicians, which Payton hopes to release later this year on his Paytone label.
As for what he’s got planned for Scullers, Payton is keeping his options open. “I usually do a mix of things from recent albums,” he says, “such as ‘Letters,’ probably some things from ‘Numbers,’ ‘Textures,’ as well as some standards. And other tunes as well.”
His bassist says even the songs themselves evolve nightly.
“He trusts the musicians to create with him,” says Archer, who’s worked with Payton for 14 years. “We have a sketch of a song — the melody, chord changes, and stuff — but we can go anywhere with the song. It’s very elastic. Night to night, the same song can go many different places.”
At Scullers, June 25 at 8 and 10 p.m. Tickets: $35, $75. 866-777-8932, www.scullersjazz.com
Bill Beuttler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.