Nicholas Payton – Dear Louis

Dear Louis
Nicholas Payton
(Verve – 2001)
by John Barrett

The concept seems obvious. “What do we do for Armstrong’s 100th anniversary? How about a modern trumpeter doing his songs? We could get Nicholas Payton; he could be the best New Orleans trumpet since Wynton Marsalis!” A simple idea, yes – but this is no copycat job. The tunes are radically transformed, played by an all-star band and made for the dance floor. Congas rumble through “Potato Head Blues”,and a tuba burbles below a mass of reeds. Bill Easley has the first solo, on his slippery clarinet; he’s fast and agile, with a touch of grit. Anthony Wonsey pounds a funky piano; when Nick hits those dizzying high notes, your jaw will drop.

“Hello Dolly” is totally re-harmonized; the theme is played so subtly you could miss it. The mood is mostly reflective: Tim Warfield spins rings with his soprano, as the rhythm slowly pulsates. Payton has a flugelhorn, and he soars; next is “I’ll Be Glad When You’re dead”, which is joyfully down-to-earth. The band pumps the riff from Jimmy Smith’s “Got My Mojo Workin'”, and sings the playful lyric like he means it. (And check out the McDuff-style organ; it’s the real deal.) “Tight Like This” opens like a sunrise: a wistful horn, and a background of weaving flutes. After a drum solo, the band erupts: Nick hits the high notes, and is met by screeching brass. Warfield plays hard, while hinting at Coltrane’s style; Wonsey answers in Tyner chords. This has intensity to burn, and when the theme returns, the power is explosive. If you doubted Nicholas Payton, you won’t after this.

Nick wrote “Dear Louis” for an Armstrong concert; he literally sketched it out just before he took the stage. On a cushion of woodwinds, the trumpet hums a two-note theme, breathy and optimistic (he later turns it into a quote of”The Peacocks”!) The arrangements are sleek and classy; Nicholas did them, and they remind me of Benny Carter. For history of another sort, Payton grabs a Fender Rhodes, twinkling stardust onto “The Sunny Side of the Street”. Diane Reeves stretches out, slowing the words and adding ethereal high notes – a little like Flora Purim. (Dr. John stops by for two vocals, including”Blues in the Night”, a fun duet with Diane. Nick has a great raspy solo, which drives me wild.)

“The Peanut Vendor” serves a hot cha-cha; the theme is submerged and the groove prevails. First come the soothing flutes and then the hot horn – it’s delicious. “Tiger Rag” starts like Louis, then a parade band marches through. Bob Stewart chugs a good tuba, the horns pop a little riff, and Scott Robinson bellows deep, on the contrabass sax. He’s the tiger; the band never catches him but they have fun trying. And wait for “West End Blues”;it’s an absolute riot. Nicholas does the Armstrong opening, note for note – you can’t improve perfection. From then on it’s solidly in the ‘Sixties,with “Night Train” horns and the B-3 of Mel Rhyne, the guy who played for Wes. The trombone is good, Rhyne is better, and Payton is in command. He doesn’t sound like Armstrong, and doesn’t need to. Like old Satch, he knows what his talent can do – then he goes out and does it.