Nicholas Payton gets political in ‘Afro-Caribbean Mixtape’

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A review by Howard Reich for the Chicago Tribune.

The brilliant trumpeter Nicholas Payton has released more than his share of landmark albums, but none as epic, ambitious or provocative as “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape.”

Spanning two densely packed CDs and rich in social commentary, “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape” unfolds almost as a manifesto, albeit expressed in thoroughly accessible music-making.

To Payton, who will perform this work Friday night in Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape” stands as much more than just a double album.

It’s “my most overt political work to date,” says the composer-bandleader-conceptualist, who will perform on a double bill with the Steve Wilson/Lewis Nash Duo.

“I’ve found a way to put a lot of the things that I’ve talked about socially into the music.”

Indeed he has, weaving into the recording the spoken words of black musicians and scholars discussing the issue that continues to roil American life: race. But Payton’s perspective on this hot-button subject avoids the usual cliches.

“We aren’t born a race — we are raced,” he writes in the album’s deeply philosophical liner notes. “But despite any structural attempts by the dominating class to suppress our spirits, there is a light that still shines within.”

So far as Payton is concerned, that ray of hope glows brightly in music.

“Those enslaved from Africa who weren’t allowed to speak their language, they developed a new language in blues and work songs and so forth,” he says. “The music is a lifeline from those who were oppressed.”

The African diaspora produced an enormous range of musical idioms, a point Payton makes implicitly throughout “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape,” which conjures a different world of sound on each track. The exotic sonic effects and spoken-word soliloquies of the title cut, the traditional string writing of “Jewel,” the trumpet balladry of “Junie’s Interlude” and the dance-band groove of “The Egyptian Second Line” reflect various facets of what Payton long has called simply Black American Music.

In so doing, Payton not only is addressing the breadth of black music in America but also, in a way, summing up his own work of the past couple of decades. The sheer range of expression he has explored is striking to behold, Payton conjuring early-20th-century lyricism in “Doc Cheatham & Nicholas Payton” (1997), contemporary trumpet virtuosity in “Fingerpainting: The Music of Herbie Hancock” (1997), rejuvenated big-band tradition in “Dear Louis” (2001), avant-funk improvisation in “Sonic Trance” (2003), Miles Davis-tinged lyricism in “Sketches of Spain” (2013), R&B dance beats in “#BAM: Live at Bohemian Caverns” (2013) and much more.

But in recent years, Payton has pushed beyond music-making to comment extensively via social media on race, music and life in America, often facing sharp criticism for it.

“I was about five years ahead of my time, before the Black Lives Matter movement,” says Payton. “So five or six years ago, I was discussing things that were creating quite a bit of controversy — not only to nonblacks but even in the black community. They rejected a lot of what I was saying.

“Now everyone’s talking about race and oppression daily. It’s not like those things weren’t occurring then,” adds Payton, noting that a great deal has changed since videos of violence against unarmed black men have become practically ubiquitous.

Over time, Payton believes that people began to realize that his commentary “wasn’t out of a place of anger or me distorting reality,” he says. “This is just how things are. This is a bitter truth, and it can’t get better unless we deal with it.”

“Afro-Caribbean Mixtape” surely stands as Payton’s way of dealing with it, the man merging his musical and social commentary into a single, expansive whole.

Having done so, “It seems almost as if everything in my life has been building up to making this album.”

Perhaps nothing in Payton’s discourses of the past few years has generated as much notoriety — at least in the music world — as his ongoing rejection of the term “jazz.” He addresses that theme again in “Afro-Caribbean Mixtape” in two tracks titled “Jazz is a Four-Letter Word.”

“I think a lot of people misinterpreted me,” he says. “I never set out to even try to change the fact that people would use this word, or had any hopes that it would go anywhere.

“The whole point isn’t if it’s called jazz or not. The point has always been for me to recognize and acknowledge who created the music.

“It doesn’t say who can play or listen. It’s not drawing a line in the sand. It’s just about acknowledging the roots of the music, because that’s the most important part.”

“Afro-Caribbean Mixtape” recognizes these roots and then some: It celebrates the majesty of the black musical tradition — past, present and future.

But listeners coming to hear Payton in Orchestra Hall need not fear the sociopolitical message, he says.

“Though the subject matter is intense, it’s certainly nothing people aren’t aware of,” Payton said.

“At the end of the day, I feel it’s still beautiful music that feels good, that sounds good, that’s soulful.”

Like everything Payton plays.

Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.

hreich@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

When: 8 p.m. Friday

Where: Orchestra Hall at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.

Tickets: $24-$76; 312-294-3000 or www.cso.org

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