IN PERFORMANCE

REVIEW: Nicholas Payton at Jazz Showcase

In his latest incarnation, the jazz trumpeter turns to piano, keyboard and vocals for a heady new music

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Trumpeter Nicholas Payton's music contains so many facets that you never know exactly which ones will emerge during a particular performance. On any given night, he might be playing 1920s Jelly Roll Morton or 1960s Miles Davis or contemporary idioms only peripherally connected to conventional definitions of jazz.

The very word "jazz," in fact, has drawn Payton's fire, the great musician writing eloquently about why he prefers the term "Black American Music."

Call it what you will, the sounds that Payton and his XXX trio produced Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase, where they're playing through Sunday, represented another chapter in Payton's apparently continual quest to redefine his art. Those expecting him to stand stage center and fire off the thrilling high notes and whirlwind runs that are at his command may have been disappointed. But listeners open to the profound musicality that undergirds all of Payton's work – including its latest incarnation – heard deeply affecting sounds rich in content and melodic event.

In a way, it's an understatement to call Payton's unit – with the long-admired drummer Lenny White and the sensitive bassist Vicente Archer – a trio. For during most of his first set, Payton doubled up, playing both Fender Rhodes electric piano and trumpet, often simultaneously. This was no stunt, however, for Payton elegantly integrated his work on both instruments. Indeed, no two artists could have handled the two modes of expression with comparable singularity of purpose and spirit.

So XXX sounded a lot more like a quartet, albeit one that understated its case more often than not. Bassist Archer and drummer White gave Payton plenty of room in which to establish the tone of some of the most intimate music-making of his career.

Much like the music on this band's new release, "#BAM: Live at Bohemian Caverns," this set encompassed seductive dance backbeats, R&B ambience, jam-band sensibility and – at its heart – exquisitely subtle jazz improvisation. Unlike many such projects that attempt to take jazz into related genres, Payton's music didn't pander to these idioms or to his audience. On the contrary, he had so much to say that it hardly seemed to matter which musical language he happened to be speaking.

Payton established the moody atmosphere and out-of-the-ordinary visuals of the evening from the outset, playing an extended solo on Fender Rhodes keyboard and not getting up from behind the instrument until the end of the set. The heavy reverb and other-worldly sounds on "The Backward Step" – an original tune that also opens the album – instantly telegraphed that this wasn't going to be a trumpet-virtuoso kind of night but something decidedly more mysterious, ambiguous and musically flirtatious.

After crafting keyboard melody lines that wandered freely into remote harmonic regions, Payton picked up his horn and whispered misty lines while accompanying himself on Fender Rhodes with sustained chords, heavy on the vibrato. As Payton played this heady music, bassist Archer and drummer White stretched rhythm like taffy to accommodate Payton's free-flowing ideas. It was all quite moody, suggestive, Impressionistic – the polar opposite, in fact, of what many listeners anticipate from Payton.

The bandleader switched to the Steinway grand for Keith Jarrett's "No Lonely Nights," packing his solo with relentless chordal detours. No one is going to call Payton a piano whiz, nor did Payton seem to seek that accolade. This was about the music – gentle, dreamy, stream-of-consciousness.

As if to give less committed listeners something a bit more tangible to hang on to, Payton focused on trumpet for "Days of Wine and Roses," a standard just about everyone recognizes. Those who wanted to hear Payton swinging hard, throwing off phenomenally fast lines and transforming a tune in the process were thus reassured that Payton still has few rivals on his horn.

When Payton broke into song for an ode to his hometown, New Orleans, he showed that his talents as vocalist have deepened, though, here, too, it wasn't about the voice but the music. The warmth of Payton's singing matched the ebullience of the tune.

It wouldn't be hard for anyone to name singers with a bigger set of pipes than Payton, pianists with more digital dexterity, Fender Rhodes masters with wilder sound effects.

But a musician who handles all of this with comparable grace, while also playing trumpet at the highest level and constantly reconceiving the way he makes music?

No one else.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Nicholas Payton XXX

When: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday

Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Ct.

Admission: $30-$50; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

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