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Interview: Nicholas Payton on his Afro-Caribbean Mixtape and racial justice

The jazz artist performs May 7 at Jazz Fest 2017



At the end of the liner notes for his new album, Afro-Caribbean Mixtape, Nicholas Payton writes, "In Black culture, there is no beginning or ending, so feel free to let the tape run again, and again, and again."

  That view of time is one of the ideas he explores on the album, examining how songs and rhythms traveled from Africa to the Caribbean to New Orleans, where they were disseminated — largely by Louis Armstrong — to the world. It's a narrative that highlights "the strong will of the African peoples," Payton writes. It also represents a circular, rather than linear movement, through time and space.

  Payton debuted his group, Afro-Caribbean Mixtape, at the 2016 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, one day after recording the foundation for the album at a rehearsal with drummer Joe Dyson, bassist Vicente Archer, keyboardist Kevin Hays and percussionist Daniel Sadownick. In the months that followed, Payton reorganized the best parts, added samples (mostly by DJ Lady Fingaz) and added music, including strings and vocals. He also wrote an explanation of what he placed on the album and why.

  "It's a true mixtape in that I'm making a pastiche of unrelated materials and bringing to light their connections," he says.

  "An album is just a snapshot in time. (As it evolves) things open up because there's already a reference. You can let go more. There's trust in what you're doing."

  Afro-Caribbean Mixtape ties together various directions Payton has gone recently as an artist and critical thinker. He's best known as a trumpeter, but he's played multiple instruments since childhood, when his father, bassist Walter Payton, brought the youngster to his shows at New Orleans clubs. These days, Nicholas usually sets up at the keyboard, which he often plays simultaneously with the trumpet.

  Payton's writing has become increasingly central to his music, particularly in elucidating issues about the effects systemic racism and colonization have on music and culture. These issues surface in the new recording, which samples the voices of musicians and intellectuals Payton says "corroborate and confirm the narrative I wanted to showcase."

  The album opens with the hiss and click of a tape machine.

  "When I mixed and sequenced and assembled the album, I had it recorded to tape then bounced back to digital [to get] that real tape hiss," he says.

  From there, a drum pattern kicks off the title track, followed by a bass motif and the sound of splashing water. The splashes give way to muffled waves, created by the panned combination of Payton's Rhodes keyboard in one channel and keyboardist Kevin Hays' Rhodes keyboard in the other. The wave effect ties the music to movement and is repeated throughout the album.

  New Orleans surfaces in the title track, too, in the form of a vocal refrain Payton's father taught him. The voice of Greg Kimathi Carr, chairman of Howard University's Department of Afro American Studies, appears for the first of many times.

  As Payton traces the music's journey across continents and time, Carr's voice addresses the systemic racism that developed alongside that music's voyage and the resilience of African and black people in the face of that oppression.

  In America, we're taught black people began their history here as slaves, Payton says. "No. We were enslaved. How we got through that was by looking beyond the physical world to ancestors and the spiritual world. Music is our ability to connect with these things. It touches us in intangible, spiritual ways that cannot be explained."

  Payton says music has been central to movements for racial justice and equality throughout history.

  "These things I'm highlighting on the album have been the case forever," he says. "The fact that they still resonate speaks to how present the history still is."

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