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Nicholas Payton found his footing in jazz through its hard-swinging main stem, another in a long line of trumpeters from New Orleans to splash onto the scene with superior dexterity. But after he'd proved his hard-bop mettle, he took a fork in the road, wending his way through a form of electronic experimentalism and driving with a hip-hop approach. Now that he's in his mid-30s, he seems happy with all of it, and then some.
In 2008, Payton released a record, Into the Blue, which cast his lot between sonic worlds: swinging yet spacey, acoustic and electric in equal part. He led a band with that aesthetic in mind at the Village Vanguard: NPR Music and WBGO hosted a live radio broadcast, online webcast and archival recording of the Nicholas Payton quintet on their Wednesday night early set.
Remarkably balanced and mixed, Into the Blue finds Payton in a sweet spot "true to who I am now," he says in a recent press release. His trumpet sound is clean and tonally pure, even through mutes and effects; he's written ballads and burners alike to show off his many sides. At the Vanguard, he chose more of the no-doubt-about-it flavor of jazz; Payton called a mix of originals and standards, played mostly straight but with edgy blowing, filled with individual idiosyncrasy. With him on Into The Blue, and on stage, were Vicente Archer on bass, Kevin Hays on grand piano and Fender Rhodes (replaced live with Taylor Eigsti, playing acoustic only), Marcus Gilmore on drums and Daniel Sadownick on hand percussion.
Payton was born into a musical family in New Orleans, and even picked two of his father's tunes for Into the Blue. He studied with Ellis Marsalis in New Orleans; he impressed Wynton Marsalis in New York. His early recorded output reflected this, whether moving along the straight-ahead mainstream or working with elder statesmen such as Doc Cheatham, Hank Jones and Ray Brown. In 2003, he wrong-footed some with Sonic Trance, which veered toward a modern sort of electric fusion, steeped in R&B and hip-hop. Of late, he seems to be after a hybrid of the jazz tradition as he sees it with the leading edge he's pursued.
"My bag is no bag," Payton told Ashley Kahn for NPR in 2006. "I don't like to be boxed into a certain type of thing. Musicians in New Orleans I find to be very, very open. It's about the music and the chemistry and the camaraderie. It's not about the genre."