By LARRY BLUMENFELD / WSJ
Early in a recent performance at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, within Jazz at Lincoln Center, a casual listener might have assumed Nicholas Payton to be a keyboardist with a fondness for Fender Rhodes electric piano and a way with a slow tempo. Minutes later Mr. Payton lifted a trumpet to his lips with his right hand and began to blow, while playing keyboard with his left, and a fuller profile began taking shape. Soon—his horn now gripped in both hands—Mr. Payton revealed the strength, agility, sweetness and bite upon which he established a career more than 20 years ago.
On trumpet, Mr. Payton can ignite a room with a fiery solo or silence it with a tender passage; he did both at Dizzy’s. Yet these days his music doesn’t rely on those abilities or that horn.
Mr. Payton arrived on jazz’s scene cast as a gifted neotraditionalist. He has spent the decades since departing from that mold. His new release, “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape” (Paytone/Ropeadope), out Friday, is his clearest and boldest expression of an aesthetic he’s long pursued. It’s sprawling (two CDs with more than two hours of music), involves more than a dozen musicians, and yet sounds focused and personal.
That cohesion is due largely to tightly interlocked elements: the flexible, quicksilver rhythmic dialogue between Joe Dyson’s trap set and Daniel Sadownick’s hand percussion; the layers of texture woven by Mr. Payton and Kevin Hays, who both play keyboard and piano on several tracks; and the dance of accents from bassist Vincente Archer and turntablist DJ Lady Fingaz.
Still, nothing seems academic. The album flows, moving joyously from, say, Mr. Payton’s trumpet playing, supporting by a string quartet, on “Jewel,” to the disco-tinged funk of “Junie’s Interlude.” Some tracks ride easy grooves, others move fitfully within densely constructed soundscapes. There are compelling examples of Afro-Cuban rumba and, yes, modern jazz, but these all seem like momentary means toward a larger and unified end.
Mr. Payton’s wide-ranging liner note cites a paternal ancestor in his native New Orleans, who is said to have played with Buddy Bolden and to have formed Henry Payton’s Accordiana Band “before anyone was thinking about jazz.” His own problem with the word “jazz” is the sense that someone else is trying to box him in. “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape” is a work of great rigor and discipline, steeped in jazz tradition and yet utterly unbound.