A few weeks ago, as the city of New Orleans was preparing to institute a stay-at-home order due to the coronavirus, Nicholas Payton got to work.
A heralded trumpeter and multi-instrumentalist, he is one of his generation’s most enterprising musicians, and one of its most fiercely independent. Faced with the impending order, he convened a pair of collaborators in his dining room, where they made a spontaneous canvas of sound. Before the two-day session was over, Payton had taken to Instagram to tease an album, Quarantined with Nick.
That album — released this past weekend on his Paytone label and now available to listen to digitally at his website— is among the first created under the conditions of our global pandemic. Its tone ranges from ominous to luxurious, with song titles that speak directly to our disordered moment: “Social Distance,” “Man-Made Malady,” “Charmin Shortage Blues.”
In its stylistic sweep, referencing everything from hip-hop to ambient techno to New Orleans bounce, Quarantined with Nick proudly aligns with Payton’s own term of art, “Black American Music,” or #BAM. We spoke by phone on Monday about the motivation behind the album, the strangeness of our socially distanced reality and his concerns about curtailed freedoms in the midst of a crisis.
Nate Chinen: Quarantined with Nick has a self-descriptive title, but how exactly did this album come about?
Nicholas Payton: Well, Cliff Hines and Sasha Masakowski and I have been playing together for about the past year, so an album is something I wanted to do for a while. But it was hard to get us all in the same place at the same time, with our schedules. We did a gig a couple of days before the quarantine, and when they shut everything down, I was like: “Yo — y’all want to get together and do this?” Everybody’s schedule was clear, so we knocked it out in two days at my crib.
What made Sasha and Cliff the ideal collaborators for this?
We’re all New Orleans-born-and-bred, and have a lot of the same mentors and teachers. We all went to NOCCA, though I’m about 15 years ahead of them. We come from a straight-ahead background — we’ve studied Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker and Miles Davis and Billie Holiday — but we’re also into hip-hop and electronic music. There’s a very strong beat identity in what we do. And then we all bring our own things: Cliff has a very indie-rock thing going on, and he’s heavily into computers; he’s like the spaceship driver. And Sasha, she’s a lover of bounce music. So we bring that 808-heavy sensibility to a lot of this stuff. We bring that New Orleans lean, as an extension of the ideas that Buddy Bolden and Louis Armstrong and King Oliver were doing 100-plus years ago.
As of today, New Orleans has nearly 1,500 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and the whole conversation around the coronavirus has evolved from when you started recording. How does the album speak to both that moment and this one?
For me, it’s kind of twofold. This virus is indeed very serious. We have yet to peak or plateau. So, you know, that curve-flattening is still ahead in the distance. And unfortunately, we’re going to see a lot more sickness and death before it’s all over.
The flip side, to me, is the mass hysteria part of it. There’s a fine line between being cautious and letting it be debilitating — intellectually, spiritually, emotionally, physically. And I can foresee the government, as they have in the past, using this as an opportunity to implement martial law and population control. Not to be a conspiracist, but I feel like there’s a history to support that, the opportunism of fear. We saw it with the flood here, also known as Katrina. We’ve seen it with so many types of natural disasters. So I wanted to speak to that part of it too, in terms of “Social Experiment” and “Population Control,” which begin the album.
So let’s talk about that idea of the government taking advantage of a crisis, which as you noted has a historical basis. How do you see it potentially being applied at the moment?
This is not some kind of conspiracist ideology. We’ve seen where the people in control have used these natural disasters as a means of implementing police states, curfews and so forth, aggressively. And even using that fear to justify laws which restrict our rights, like the Patriot Act. Some catastrophe or disaster happens, and we’re willing to sacrifice many of our freedoms for the illusion of heightened security. So to me that’s a fine line, as far as being safe and cautious about this virus, but being in such fear that we’re willing to sign away our rights. That’s where it gets tricky and dangerous to me.
What, then, would you say to the most obvious application of restricted freedoms at the moment — these stay-at-home orders and quarantines? There’s a compelling public health rationale for them.
So it sounds like you’re sort of ringing the bell: “Take this seriously, but be aware of what you’re surrendering in this moment.”
Exactly. I’m just speaking ahead: At what point does it get to be compromising?
In the midst of this incredible disruption, some are saying that it provides us with a moment to consider how broken various systems were. By this logic, instead of “getting back to normal,” we should try to fix what was wrong to begin with.
We’ve hit a universal reset button. We’ve had these recent revolutions — women fighting for rights, #BlackLivesMatter — that really haven’t yielded many returns. But to me, here’s the revolution. You asked the universe for it, so now here we are. What are we going to be called upon to bring forth in this moment? Here’s our opportunity: When all is lost, you have nothing to lose. So the slate is clean, and you have an opportunity to rebuild and start over. My only concern is, we have to do that work.
Right, it won’t just happen.
Like, New Orleans, in terms of the infrastructure, was f*****. So now the city floods. OK, now that we’ve lost everything, we have a clean slate. Are we going to rebuild the way we should have? I didn’t really see that happen here. So I would hate for us not to utilize this as a moment to rebuild some of the things that have been fundamentally flawed since the inception of this country. I think we have a real opportunity here. Let’s not squander it. Let’s use it wisely. And this is time for the people who wanted to implement certain changes — in terms of how we treat animals, in terms of gun laws, in terms of education, in terms of all these big-ticket items that we press the politicians for — to really go hard for those things. We can’t let the quarantine and fear stop us from going for the things that we were going for before this happened.
It strikes me that what you’re interested in are systemic issues — looking at that macro picture.
Always. I mean, that’s what the #BAM movement is essentially about. Breaking down those structures and false constructs which serve to oppress us. It’s not just about black people; it’s really about all of us as a global community.
That’s important to acknowledge, that #BAM is not just a matter of genre terminology. But it also prompts me to note that today is the 50th anniversary of the release of Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew. There’s a moment on “Population Control” when you enter on trumpet, and something about your intonation — it doesn’t sound like Miles, but it feels like Miles. So let’s talk about the spiritual connection that this album might have to that one.
There were distinct moments through this album where I felt connections to the ancestors, almost as if they wanted to walk through and contribute and play on the project. Miles was certainly one of them. Trumpet-wise, Freddie Hubbard also. On “Witness,” there were distinct moments where I felt like McCoy Tyner coming through my hands, and guiding my fingers to play things that I don’t typically go for. So there were a lot of such moments. A lot of Joe Zawinul, as a result of the synth work; a lot of George Duke. And yeah, Bitches Brew has been a seminal work for me for many years. It was a big influence on my Sonic Trance album.
The electronic elements on this album do feel like a corollary to what Miles was doing with rock and ambient music on Bitches Brew.
What was interesting about the whole session is that although we were recording to a click within Ableton software, the computer was glitching, and these drum machines were shifting time. So we were joking, like: these computers have COVID-19. Everything was sort of responding in kind, and initially Cliff said, “I’ll try to fix it.” I was like, “No, don’t fix it – leave those glitches there, because they give us that little edge of humanity and imperfection, which really speaks to what’s going on here.”
I can think of few things truer to this moment than glitchy time. I mean, we’re not experiencing time in a normal way right now.
Exactly, time is glitching itself.
Then, too, our social bonds are distorted. So many of us are in isolation, and we’re managing to find connection through livestreams and social media. How do you feel, now that this album is a part of that story?
I think it’s cool how a lot of these cats are building tracks and circulating them — making videos, all in their respective home studios, and virtually playing together. It speaks to the moment. I just want to be aware, so that this doesn’t necessarily become the new norm, so we don’t stop actually playing together in the same room, for the sake of convenience.
Also, most of this — pretty much all of it, that I see — is free. And I don’t want to see another dumbing-down in our value, as bad as it already is, with streaming and how artists don’t get paid properly for the results. If we condition people to get free performances, we may not be able to transition back to our jobs after this is all over. So I think we need to be aware of monetizing our product, as long as we live in a capitalist system, and not feel any shame about it. … We did a livestream performance and put the Venmo there, and they made donations and the band split it. I think we need to think in terms of being resourceful, and protecting our capital, and monetizing it. And not once again opening a bigger threshold devaluing our music.