On John Murph’s Jazz Times Interview . . .

Over the last twenty-some years of my career, I’ve done quite a few interviews. It has happened that every so often my words or thoughts have been misunderstood or misrepresented, but never to the degree displayed in the recent interview with John Murph. So much so, that I feel compelled to step from behind my usual silent demeanor to write this first ever letter-to-the-editor.

To say I was nonplussed when I read this article would be an understatement. To the extent that I had to call my publicist to recall if I had even spoken with this gentleman.  Whereas we may have talked, he clearly didn’t listen. I was taken completely out of context. I don’t understand Murph’s motivation in twisting my words to suit what appears to be his personal agenda. After all, the article was to be a review of the new record and he devotes about a third of the interview denigrating my previous release Sonic Trance (which is almost five years old). And on top of that, he tries to make it as though I share his sentiments.

Let it be understood that I have no problem with criticism, negative or otherwise. It’s just that most journalists who write reviews don’t possess the musical expertise to make a critique in specific terms. In order to properly criticize something you have to know what it is. On Sonic Trance, they completely ignored the thematic material presented early in the record and how we recapitulated those ideas throughout the rest of the recording. Of all the journalists whom I’ve heard speak on the record, Stanley Crouch and Chip Deffaa were the only ones to my immediate recollection who spoke about it in specific terms. Likes or dislikes are immaterial. Chip dug it; Stanley didn’t.

Mr. Murph said that by my own admission the material on Sonic Trance wasn’t my strongest. I’d like to set the record straight (pun intended) by saying that no matter how many records I may be blessed with making, Sonic Trance will always be one of my strongest.  Primarily because it’s the first time that I made a record as a leader where I played music from a standpoint of no reference. I vowed that Dear Louis would be the last time I would do that. That was not to say I wouldn’t play what has been termed “straight-ahead acoustic jazz” anymore, but that I would no longer improvise from a position of my predecessor’s perspectives. Sonic Trance was not an effort to electrify my music for the prospect of popular appeal, but rather to free myself from the invisible boundary lines of what is and what is not jazz. To those who may have thought that I was selling out, please believe me when I say I would make a lot more money doing “Dear Louis” projects.

Mr. Murph obviously interpreted me saying that at the end of the Sonic Trance sessions that me not having any tunes was a bad thing.  We weren’t playing tunes anymore; we were creating moods. So, the idea of playing a song a couple of times and having a superior take was done. Now, I had four versions of “Fela” that were strong in different ways. It became more about what character was to appear in this part of the film; which is why I said it was a work in post-production.

There was no disadvantage that revealed itself on the bandstand as a result of the music on Sonic Trance as Murph said, but rather a challenge that helped my band grow. We threw away our crutches of form and chord changes, and opted to hobble along new ground in order to find our own voices rather than tread safely on previously chartered territory.

Murph goes on to say that I “soon” realized that I needed to go back to the drawing board after two years of supporting Sonic Trance. Not true. In the span of two years, we did everything we could with that configuration and that music and I disbanded the group because it was time to move on. I would quantify two years of playing music from one record as much more than an adequate amount of time to deal with the concept from one record.

Then Murph goes on to say that in a way I had to “eat crow” because I returned to what he refers to as a more straight-ahead setting. I have to assume that Murph never really checked out Sonic Trance live, because if he did, he’d realize that I never have and never will stop swinging. I can’t help it; it’s in my DNA!
I’ve been a jazz musician most of my life, but I really learned to improvise with the Sonic Trance band. We had to. The openness of the material called for it. The songs were like mirrors. Whatever you were; was the tune.

After I’d learned what it was to truly improvise in Sonic Trance, I wanted to put that idea in the context of form and chord changes. I also noticed that up until that point most of my bands were comprised of my peers, and in some cases, my progenitors. Now that I was approaching the age where I was no longer amongst the youngest, I wanted to get some of that new blood in my band and give back what was given to me. So, I wrote some new music and enlisted the services of some of the hottest cats on the scene.

I also wanted to note that my embouchure change has been something on going since about 2003. Right before the release of Sonic Trance, I started reassessing my approach to the trumpet. It was a very rough period, as I didn’t sequester myself so I could get my chops together. I did it all throughout the rigors of a full touring schedule, which may not have been the best approach, but it’s what I did. As a result, for the first time I found myself having to cancel gigs from time to time. My chops were changing, in a good way, but it made it difficult for me to be consistent.  Sometimes during a week at a club, every night would feel like playing on a different embouchure. In fact, it still feels like that, it’s just that I’ve just gotten use to it. Getting beyond the feel is the most challenging thing about the trumpet. It’s all mental.

A car accident in 2006 precluded me from continuing with my summer schedule for about three months, not six as Mr. Murph says. All of the teachers I studied with were prior to the accident not afterwards as Murph stated. After the accident, I abandoned my idea of their concepts and realized that they (and more importantly Life) had given me the tools to teach myself how to be a better player, which is all a great teacher can do at best.

I mentioned after Sonic Trance that my next record would be an extension of the vision presented on that record. Into The Blue is the realization of those hopes promised. Murph says that we emphasized groove more than swing on Into The Blue. That’s an interesting perspective, because I don’t believe these two things to be mutually exclusive. Moreover, I view them to be different terminologies used to express the exact same sensibility. Groove and swing are not just simply rudimentary rhythmic patterns, for if they were then everyone who executed them correctly could be said to be grooving or swinging. It is where a musician chooses to place those rhythms that actually makes it groove or swing.  I believe the same principle applies to the blues.

One of the most important things that I’ve realized as a musician is that the greatest players are always the greatest listeners. We don’t create this music; it is a gift. If you really listen, you don’t ever have to worry about what to say. The more you try to make it something, the less authentic it becomes. The more you listen, the clearer everything becomes.

– Nicholas Payton

For the original interview click on the download (it’s quite a load alright!) below.