Nicholas Payton Sexxxtet Jams, Swings, and Funks Up San Antonio

Originally written for African-American Reflections

There had to have been many who didn’t know what to expect on Sunday, February 20, when they entered the McAllister Auditorium on the campus of San Antonio College. The theater was the setting for another concert in the ongoing Musical Bridges Around the World series, now thirteen years running, but Sunday afternoon’s Nicholas Payton Sexxxtet concert was the only jazz show of the series this year and it was certainly something special.

The crowd at the McAllister was mixed with all kinds of people. Many of those in attendance were an older crowd, the standard fare for the Musical Bridges concerts, many of whom were attending thanks to the vigilant efforts of Drs. Bradley Kayser and Chuck Parrish who are instrumental in the ongoing series and who take pride in promoting jazz throughout San Antonio. Yet it is these efforts in conjunction with the San Antonio Youth Commission that also ensured that a few young folks were also dotted throughout the crowd through a joint effort with jazz station KRTU’s Growing Jazz program to provide tickets to the concert to various students throughout the city from assorted middle schools, high schools, and colleges and to throw a workshop with Payton the following Monday at the Laurie Auditorium on jazz performance and improvisation.

With Nicholas Payton, it’s hard to determine what Payton he will present. The 35-year-old trumpeter has transformed himself many times in his long career, from standard bearer of his New Orleans home to leader of a free jazz collective to heading up an R&B/hip hop-tinged group, anything is possible. Such was the case Sunday afternoon with his almost two hour set touching on all of these different genres at some point, which a few in the crowd found jarring but most were quite astounded at this sextet’s talent, able to move almost seamlessly from genre to genre, oftentimes without stopping.

Many have described the concert as “hazy,” thanks largely in part to young keyboardist Lawrence Elliot Fields on the Fender Rhodes for much of the show. Fields shows talent beyond his years but quite indicative of his time, adding the most prevalent texture of the group in league with such current genre bending players like jazzy electronic musician Flying Lotus or Madlib. Yet Fields’ efforts were certainly not alone. Most astounding of the sextet was the percussion section, a one-two punch of Roland Guerrero on congas and assorted percussion instruments (the man plays a mean triangle) and much heralded drummer Karriem Riggins. The sextet is rounded out by bassist Robert Hurst and vocalist Johnaye Filelle Kendrick whose voice is exemplary as providing additional texture to many of the songs but is found to be a tad lacking when she’s actually singing words, yet Kendrick’s vocalese is a great compliment to the group overall.

Payton seems to be directing himself back from the wild swing of the pendulum that was his self released mixtape of last year, Bitches, while still maintaining its R&B and hip hop touches most adeptly reinforced by Riggins’ drumming. The afternoon swung from earthshaking, ethereal tones to downright funky all while staying deeply rooted in the wide tableau of jazz music but did so fluidly, rarely breaking between tunes. It is these swings that found the evening difficult to describe and, for some, difficult to enjoy unless one kept a particularly open mind throughout the concert. It was an afternoon that rewarded an appreciation for diversity, much like everything in Nicholas Payton’s broad career.