Friday, November 23, 2012

Beyond Ninety Miles

by Susan Kepecs
Three prodigious players at the top of today's bop – saxman David Sánchez, vibraphonist Stefon Harris and trumpeter Nicholas Payton – bring their Ninety Miles Project to the Wisconsin Union Theater at Music Hall Thursday night (Nov. 29).  Ninety Miles refers to the distance between the tip of South Florida and the Castros’ big, music-wondrous island, and the project indeed was first conceived as a bridge between US and Cuban musicians.  Puerto Rico-born Sánchez, Harris, and trumpeter Christian Scott joined up in Havana with Cuban composer / pianists Rember Duharte and Harold López-Nussa, plus a rhythm section of their paisanos.  But the project’s name is deceptive.  Even on the eponymous 2011 album, recorded at very epicenter of clave, the son-y-rumba rhythmic key is more implied than literal.  The Ninety Miles Project isn't Cubop, the raw, powerful mix of rumba and bebop forged in New York by Dizzy Gillespie with two Cubans, trumpeter Mario Bauzá and volatile percussionist Chano Pozo, when Havana was Mobster Heaven and the US sat at its WWII-era height of global hegemony.  What Ninety Miles plays isn’t mambo / cha-cha-cha bailable Latin jazz in the Eddie Palmieri, Poncho Sánchez, Tony Castañeda sense.  Instead, the Ninety Miles Project puts out lovely new-century bop with a bright pan-Latin tinge.   
Nicholas Payton replaced Scott on trumpet after the Cuba session.  The rest of the current, US-based lineup: venezolano Edward Simon on piano, Henry Cole on drums, Sánchez’ fellow borinqueño Ricardo Rodriguez on bass and Cuban timbero Mauricio Herrera on percussion.
Simon is an established leader in his own right; Rodriguez, Herrera and Cole (whose debut album was released last year), rising players all, are compiling impressive credits.  But Ninety Miles’ trio of top-tier frontmen is the reason this is a milestone show.  Sánchez, who headlined the Isthmus Jazz Festival in 2009, is a master at coaxing the far-flung ritmos of Latin America and Africa into his Afro-Boricua, bomba-based post-bop.  Sánchez’ approach to rhythm is remarkably subtle, which lends mystery to his music – but if you close your eyes and feel the beat you can usually find the roots from which it springs.
Vibraphone virtuoso Stefon Harris, who started out playing classical and has worked with the great bop pianist Kenny Barron in multiple formats, can swing anything, from soul to Stravinsky.  Harris puts out some of the most complex, and often lyrical, R&B / hip hop / post-bop fusions on the planet with his own band, Blackout.
Nicholas Payton is one of the most fiercely articulate New Orleans trumpeters working today.  A prominent player of Marsalis-style neo-bop, Payton’s also turned out boss boogaloos and, recently, a musically open-ended approach to R&B (his 2011 release, Bitches).  He’s prolific as a writer, too, howling up a hurricane of liberation opinion – he can out-Cornel West Cornel West – on his blog, “The Cherub Speaks” (  One of Payton’s top topics is his crusade to replace the once-pejorative term “jazz” with the unencumbered descriptor “Black American Music.” While I don’t agree with everything he has to say I think he’s right on this one, except for a critical glitch -- Payton's preferred term excludes the Caribbean parts of the Latin canon.

I interviewed Payton a few weeks back, about the way he plays and his place in the Ninety Miles Project.  Somewhat surprisingly, given the way he writes, he wasn’t blustery at all on the phone.  Here are my questions, and his thoughtful answers. 

CulturalOyster: The New York Times recently called you “jazz’s chief polemicist.”  Anyone who’s taken a look at your blog would agree, and Bitches is a little like that – it takes very pointed aim at the artificial walls that tend to be used to categorize what you call Black American Music.  On the other hand, despite how overblown it is, I really don’t see much that’s polemical about the black American music argument – I think it’s mostly a truth-to-power issue, and I like to think reasonable people will choose truth over power most of the time.  Also, the bio on your website says you’re the embodiment of all trumpet players who came before, and that long tradition is evident in the way you play – to me you sound much more spiritual than – ok, not a trumpet player, but – Archie Shepp angry.  So, how do you reconcile the dichotomy between polemicist and traditionalist?

Payton: I think life is riddles with dichotomies.  You negotiate extremes on a daily basis, it’s what makes life dynamic.  We wouldn’t know good without bad, night gives us an appreciation and perspective of the day…so we’re always negotiating the state of opposites and the gradient scales that exist in between.  I try to break down the illusory walls that separate things that are in essence unified but that people tend to divide.  I try to look for constants, and, as you said before, for truth.  So, getting back to the black American music issue, to me it’s not about a genre or a movement or anything else.  Black American music is what it is.  The term jazz, that was slapped on after the music was developed.  It doesn’t really speak to what the music is, and it’s a very disdainful word if you look at its etomology.  The whole motive for what I’ve been saying is that “black American music” isn’t a gimmick, it’s not a name – it’s just the truth. 

CulturalOyster: You came to the Ninety Miles Project after the original recording in Havana, on which Christian Scott played trupmet.  What do you bring to that table that changes what we should expect, if we’re basing our expectations on the album?

Payton: By virtue of there being a different energy and personality, the music changes.  Scott and I are both trumpet players from New Orleans, but we have very different personalities, very different experiences.  I bring the things that make me me to the table.   That said, in New Orleans we often liken ourselves to the northernmost part of the Caribbean.  New Orleans is the entryway through which those Afro-Caribbean rhythms came to North America.  And in places like New Orleans and Cuba, where musicians are some of the most respected and prominent people in the community, and where music and dance are so intertwined, the rhythms are in the air.  You can feel that energy as soon as you set foot in these places.  If you’re raised in the New Orleans tradition you have an affinity and a very natural and organic connection to Afro-Caribbean music.  So Scott and I both provide natural links to how Afro-Caribbean rhythms were translated to the the North American area – but the way we do that is a very individual thing.

CulturalOyster: Right, the cross-currents in the Ninety Miles Project are historic – the line goes straight through from the New Orleans connection – Jelly Roll Morton’s “Spanish tinge” – to Cubop, to the ongoing influx of players from Latin America and the Caribbean in New York today.  Can we pinpoint what Ninety Miles is doing, or is this really all one thing, moving forward through new generations?

Payton: I don’t think we can pinpoint it – since I’ve been in the band it’s definitely taking a different shape than when the project started.  With all due respect to Cuban music it’s not an Afro-Cuban project.  The lines have become very fluid and pan-diaspora, it’s a lot of different kinds of languages all steeped in the traditions of  the Americas – and it’s about how that primal, rhythmic DNA has taken shape in the form of the music today.  Even within a solo at times we find now that the groove becomes very pliable, it might go from funky to kind of traditional or go into 4/4 swing, so the lines blur on a nightly basis when we perform.  It’s really cool for me since that’s where I am with it, going back to your first question about breaking away from the idea of separate genres. 

CulturalOyster: Sounds like it’s time for a new recording.

Payton: We haven’t nailed down any specifics yet, but we’re talkin’ about it!