Now Payton, who has been called the musical and physical reincarnation of the pioneering Joe "King" Oliver, the New Orleans cornetist who gave Louis Armstrong his first break, has taken a bold step. He has stepped away from the past -- and from any mainstream expectations for his music.
On the heels of "Dear Louis," his 2000 centennial tribute to Louis Armstrong, Payton has just released a conceptual project that includes electronic effects, hip-hop and a bit of rap, a tone-poem feel, and trances -- all tied, through his vision, into the jazz tradition. Traditionalists beware. "Sonic Trance," his debut project for Warner Bros., is not the son of "Dear Louis" stylistically.
The use of electronic effects such as a wah-wah pedal and digital delays linked to his horn are drawing natural but perhaps unfair comparisons to Miles Davis's "Bitches Brew" phase at the birth of fusion.
Payton, who turned 30 on Sept. 26, is not turning his back on the past. In fact one tune, "Cannabis Leaf Rag," shows the very strong syncopation link between Jelly Roll Morton's ragtime rhythms on "Maple Leaf Rag" from the early 1970s and today's hip-hop. It even starts out with the sampled sound of a scratchy 78-rpm record.
"Some people don't view hip-hop as an art form, but it's the voice of the youth and very much a part of me," Payton said. "Though I have been influenced by it, I haven't explored it to the level I have on this record."
After Payton recorded "Dear Louis," he knew he was "closing a chapter on the kind of records I wanted to make. I'm still playing jazz, but from the perspective of a man of my age and experiences. All of the musicians I love and respect, like Ornette Coleman, John Coltrane and Bill Evans, made statements that had not only personal relevance to their lives, but cultural relevancy to the times in which they lived."
"Sonic Trance" grew out of the impact of Time Machine and Soul Patrol, two side bands Payton started while winding down and disbanding his longstanding quintet. "Though I love the cats I had before, this has really re-energized me. I thought I needed a change," Payton said.
The new project teamed Payton with pianist Kevin Hays, Vicente Archer on acoustic bass, Daniel Sadownick on percussion and Karriem Riggins on sampler and synthesizer. He also brought along two holdovers from his quintet -- saxophonist Tim Warfield and drummer Adonis Rose.
"I approached this album like cinema," he said. "Certain recurring melodies are like characters that appear and reappear in different incarnations ... one minute wholesome, the next evil. Some things just appear out of the blue. We go from rap to a tone poem on this album because that's how life can be. One moment we're involved in the most buffoonish of escapades and the next, something beautiful."
The most traditional piece on the "Sonic Trance" odyssey is "Blu Hays," a melody he said he created from hearing Hays and Rose work off each other's sounds while warming up. "The idea was to show how sometimes we can be connected even though we don't always recognize it," Payton said.
With new sonic trappings and a trancy soundscape he has created for a new millennium, Payton is pressing forward with his own spirit and inspirations, much as fellow New Orleans native Armstrong did so many years ago, enduring challenges and changing times along the way.
"I feel this record is very timely," Payton said. "All of the musicians come from different racial, cultural ands spiritual backgrounds, yet we were able to create a unified body of work. We need more of that in the world right now."