I went to see the famous jazz trumpeter, Nicholas Payton, perform in the magnificent Royce Auditorium at St. Cecilia’s Music Center in Grand Rapids, and on that night, I did something I have never, ever done before: I walked out in the middle of a concert that I paid good money to attend.
I have to admit, though, that my reasons for attending were not purely because I wanted to hear Payton play. I’ve never heard him live before, but I was familiar with his earlier work and was always impressed with his musicianship and his skills as a trumpet player. Lately, the trumpet players I’ve been listening to include Tomas Stanko, Dave Douglas, Cuong Vu, and Ingrid Jensen. I just hadn’t kept up with the “Young Lions” from the ‘90s.
The reason I was interested in attending was because I had been reading and following Payton’s blog. Several months ago, a student of mine sent me a link to a post entitled On Why Jazz Isn’t Cool Anymore. I read the post with a mixture of amazement and sadness. It read like that 1:30 AM Facebook rant from someone you don’t really know all that well, but who is clearly in the process of publicly coming unhinged and whose drug-addled “poetry” must have seemed deep, philosophical, and authoritative when written under the influence of whatever white powder or brown liquid was being consumed; for those not under that influence, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. Here are a few examples from Payton’s blog:
Jazz died when cool stopped being hip.
Jazz was a limited idea to begin with.
Jazz is a label that was forced upon the musicians.
The musicians should’ve never accepted that idea.
Jazz ain’t shit.
I play Postmodern New Orleans music.
Jazz is incestuous.
Let it go.
Definitions are retrospective.
Jazz, like the Buddha, is dead.
I play Postmodern New Orleans music.
Let it go, people, let it go.
Paul Whiteman was the King of Jazz and someday all kings must fall.
Jazz ain’t cool, it’s cold, like necrophilia.
Stop fucking the dead and embrace the living.
I play Postmodern New Orleans music.
(Got it–you’re not a jazz musician, you’re a Postmodern New Orleans Musician, and we know that because you told us so. Three times.)
It’s not just that the tense is confusing (Is he making statements, or giving advice?), or that most of the statements don’t clarify anything (“Jazz ain’t shit”–OK–good argument), or that the statements are circular (Would jazz still be alive if “cool” was still “hip,” or if “hip” was still “cool”?), or that the metaphors are both tortured and immature, or that the statements are just false (the term “jazz” was forced on musicians?), or that it relies heavily on swearing and words with supposed shock value (“necrophilia” is mentioned twice, and referenced once), it’s that Payton must actually have convinced himself that this is a meaningful discourse on the state of jazz in today’s culture.
I followed the blog for awhile, and found more disturbing posts. Here are some titles:
I sent Payton’s blog links to several jazz musician friends, and they were all as confused and dismayed as I was. My view was that we were watching the jazz version of Charlie Sheen unravel in front our eyes on the internet. A few of my friends, however, disagreed. They said that his blog is just an act, a marketing tool, a clever way of generating controversy to kickstart a stalled career. That’s why I went to the concert. I wanted to see what a person who writes this kind of trash and nonsense actually sounds like when they walk out on stage and play. Unfortunately, and much to my chagrin, I found out exactly what that sounds like.
To begin, let’s play a guessing game–Click here to listen to a mystery excerpt (it’s only 2 minutes long). Can you guess who the Rhodes player is? Herbie Hancock maybe? Chick Corea? Jan Hammer? Russ Ferrante? Bill Evans? None of the above?
If you guessed “none of the above” you guessed right, and if you’re familiar with the remarkable history of electronic keyboards in jazz, you also know immediately that this is not part of it. In fact, this is none other than Nicholas Payton playing the ironically titled The Backwards Step from his album Into the Blue, which was the first tune they played at the concert in Grand Rapids. Payton played some trumpet as well, but played it one-handed while seated at the Rhodes electric piano.
The tune, with its banal, almost “smooth jazz” chord changes, lasted for about 25 minutes, and most of that was Payton playing a meandering, sophomoric keyboard solo not unlike what you heard in the example above. There’s no way to say this nicely: he’s not a piano player. His skills on the instrument would be impressive if he were a high school junior playing at a state festival, but he’s not, he’s a celebrated trumpet player playing a concert for about 500 people who paid good money to see him play the trumpet. Lest there be any confusion, his promotional materials and the marketing clearly advertised that we were paying to hear a trumpet legend play the trumpet, not to hear a trumpet legend noodle around on an instrument he can’t play for an hour.
After this tune, they played another original from the same album, and in this one, his Rhodes “solo” was filtered through a horrible effects box that distorted the sound in the most wretched manner imaginable. Don’t get me wrong, I love Rhodes piano and I love synthesizers, but this was so bad, I could hardly believe my ears. At times, it sounded like a “space ship landing” sound effect from a cheap sci-fi B-movie from the 1950s; then, it got more distorted and sounded like an early Moog synthesizer being pumped through a broken guitar amplifier. What it did seem to do, however, was turn the homophonic Rhodes into a monophonic (capable of only playing one pitch at a time) instrument that also slurred the movement from pitch to pitch. This is a trick used by most beginner keyboard players when they want to mask their poor technique, especially when attempting to play fast lines. Turn the synth to “monophonic” with some “portamento” and you think you’ve succeeded in making yourself sound more skilled than you really are.
I should also say that I have no problem with someone playing two instruments at the same time. Art Lande, for example, certainly does so with aplomb (it is hard to tell that one person is playing both the piano and the drums!).Trumpet and piano together, however, is more rare, but my good friend from Detroit, the late Ed Kubilus, regularly played gigs for 4-hours straight with the trumpet in his right hand, and a rock solid stride-based piano with his left hand. This was a truly amazing thing to hear, not because it was freakish, but because it was so musical and so effortlessly achieved. Payton has none of this in his “duet” playing.
How was all of this received by the audience? That is hard to say with complete certainty, but it did not appear that the audience was impressed. The applause was not enthusiastic, and there were several people around me who were texting and falling asleep after the first tune and its 25 pointless minutes. (The only thing that made it even marginally listenable was the aggressive, virtuosic playing of the drummer, Damion Reid, and the steady foundation provided by the bassist, Vicente Archer.)
I don’t normally critique or review performances, but I made an exception here, because what I witnessed was simply so outlandish that I will likely never see anything of the sort again. It reminded me of the trick that high school music students often play when there’s a substitute teacher–a few of the class clowns switch instruments, hilarity ensues. Unfortunately, this wasn’t a substitute audience, it was a real audience made up of about 500 people who paid to hear an outstanding jazz trumpet player, and instead, they heard a hack pianist indulge himself in his own inarticulate neophyte fantasies. Many of them won’t ever come to a jazz concert again, and I wouldn’t blame them. That’s okay I guess, because “Jazz ain’t shit,” right Nicholas?