BRATTLEBORO—The Vermont Jazz Center welcomes Grammy-winning trumpeter Nicholas Payton and vocalist Cyrille Aimée to the stage in a duo performance on Saturday, Oct. 12.
Payton will perform on trumpet, acoustic bass, piano, and Fender Rhodes; Aimée will sing and, at times, use a looping device to layer her vocals.
Individually, Payton and Aimée are two of the most creative musicians on the scene today, but as a duo their collaboration synergistically expands the boundaries of improvisational music. They spontaneously interact or push each other, sometimes delving into material from the Great American Songbook, other times exploring new sonic textures or hypnotic grooves.
This concert will present two artists whose individual work demonstrates a love for the lineage of tradition and a deep respect for the masters who paved the way. This collaboration boldly manifests the idea Miles Davis championed his whole career: that music evolves with the times and, that in order to be innovators, it is incumbent upon us to explore uncharted territories.
A recent article in Downbeat glowingly reviewed one of the duo’s first shows — in a funky New Orleans club as part of a series organized by Aimée in her recently adopted hometown.
According to the review, what really stood out was how they creatively combined standards such as After You’ve Gone, All of Me, and How Deep is the Ocean with the use of a vocal looper, funk grooves, scat singing, and a very intentional emphasis on improvisation.
In that article, Payton praised Aimée, saying “Cyrille is a complete musician. What she does with the looper is entertaining, sure, but the fact that she hears all the parts orchestrally is pretty brilliant. She’s also a true improviser, which is rare these days. Her processing speed is fast, so when she hears something, she can jump on it and take it to another level instantaneously.”
The fact that both musicians call New Orleans home says a lot about this project: it reflects the comfort they feel while improvising and an ease in embracing both traditional and forward-seeking visions.
New Orleans is defined by musical history and cultural riches. It is home to the legends of Buddy Bolden and Storyville, community brass bands and second-line parades, a place where one experiences the reverence of the traditions presaged by the music’s forebears: Joe Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Sidney Bechet, James Booker, Professor Longhair, and Baby Dodds.
To this day, the musical language, attitude, and repertoire of these masters serves as a jumping-off point for young musicians; the sounds of these earlier eras are still featured fare in numerous restaurants and bars.
But New Orleans is also the home base of forward-thinking leaders and teachers like Nicholas Payton, Donald Harrison, Christian Scott, Trombone Shorty, and the Marsalis family as well as innumerable past greats such as Henry Butler, Dr. John, Idris Muhammad, Allen Toussaint, and Ed Blackwell, who crafted new ways of building on the tradition and creating meaningful art that is germane in today’s turbulent times.
Finding her ‘Gypsy energy’
In the Downbeat article, Aimée reflected on the amped-up energy she felt after moving from NYC to New Orleans.
“Here in New Orleans,” she said, “music is fun. And in New York, it’s more about the mind over the heart — the drive to be the best. You have a tendency to forget that music is fun. Moving here helped me find my gypsy energy again ….
“Music is such a vital ... necessary part of life in New Orleans — like eating and sleeping. There’s a deep emotion in the music that comes through very strong. And it’s the same feeling I had when I was singing with the gypsies at the Django Festival in France.”
Aimée grew up in the village of Samois-sur-Seine, the site of the Django Festival. She said “Bands of gypsies would come from all over and camp out for the week of the festival. I used to sneak out at night and go to hear the gypsies play their music, and that’s when I first fell in love with jazz.
“There was a real feeling for freedom in the music and the improvisation of the musicians. That was when I knew that I wanted to be a jazz singer.”
Conveying freedom in music comes naturally to Aimée and Payton. Listeners can hear it in their duo performances on Instagram when they take Gee Baby Ain’t I Good to You, and morph it from a clever theater piece into a serious, soulful groove, unifying a noisy crowd into a focused, participatory audience.
In one of Payton’s numerous essays on his website, he writes about opportunities for openness and how they are essential to creative well-being: “I think it’s time we hold space for artists to be free. Art serves as a bridge between this world and the ancestral one. In this illusory world, it’s the only thing that makes us whole. It’s what saves us when education, policing, government, and religion fail.”
In another essay describing his recordings with Butcher Brown, he states “the idea is that we leave space...to find yourself in the music. In the New Orleans tradition, collective interplay is key.”
Freedom and mastery
Circling back we find that freedom and mastery are what define this duo project. Both Payton and Aimée get it: the three elements at play are 1) the mastery of one’s instrument (or voice) and repertoire, 2) the patience to leave space and let the music evolve and, 3) the willingness to let the collective interplay service the music rather than the individual.
Once these elements are in place and embraced, the table is set and it is time to dig in.
These conditions are met by Payton and Aimée — what makes their efforts magical is their unified willingness to commit to the project, their personal “chemistry” that enhances their desire to create together, and an agreement to spend time cultivating and discovering their collaborative language.
Payton is one of the leading trumpeters of our time. His first major tour and recording opportunity was with Elvin Jones’ Jazz Machine (three albums), and he has appeared on recordings with Common, Stanton Moore, Dr. John, Esperanza Spalding, Roy Hargrove, George Duke, Ellis Marsalis, Christian McBride, Allen Toussaint, Joshua Redman, Joanne Brackeen, Eldar, Cassandra Wilson, Trey Anastasio, the Headhunters, Marcus Roberts, Pete Yellin, Chick Corea, Ray Brown, Jimmy Smith, and many others.
He earned a Grammy for an album he recorded with elder statesman Doc Cheatham. Payton now has 15 albums out as a leader. He is a provocative thinker who clarifies that “I don’t play jazz ... I play Postmodern New Orleans Music.”
Aimée has eight albums as a leader including her most recent album featuring the music of Stephen Sondheim (Move On, A Sondheim Adventure, Mack Avenue Jazz), which Sondheim called “terrific, not just you but the band and the arrangements. Congratulations.”
During the annual gathering of the Django Reinhardt Festival in her hometown in France, Aimée would take part in the fireside sing-alongs that exposed her to the joys of gypsy music and a spontaneous, nomadic, and music-filled way of life.
Traveling to New York for school, she developed her skills and locked in her passion for creative improvising and material from the Great American Songbook. In 2017, she moved to New Orleans. Aimée is winner of the Montreux Jazz Vocal competition and the Sarah Vaughan International Vocal competition and was a finalist in the Thelonious Monk competition.