Nicholas Payton: “Bitches”

Bitches is a catchy enough title, I suppose, but a bit of a misnomer for Nicholas Payton’s new record. The word carries some baggage, it’s fair to say, but there’s nothing like vitriol or misogyny—or even crudity—in these fifteen songs. Payton says the album was designed to be a grown man’s post-mortem on a failed relationship, a breakup album fueled by adult feelings and real maturity. I think it succeeds brilliantly—though I should mention, I guess, that the title track, which appears as the album’s last song, does repeat the word “bitches” as a sort of chant over a handclapped blues. Payton says he’s swearing ‘em off for good this time, and it works partly because he openly admits to the cliché, partly because it’s uproariously funny, but mostly because everything that comes before it is so sensitive and tender-hearted.

But it’s a misnomer for another reason, too. Payton is a renowned jazz trumpeter with a clear, sonorous tone; you might know him from his own fine recordings, or perhaps form his stellar supporting work on Allen Toussaint’s Bright Mississippi. A jazz trumpet calling an album Bitches is destined to invite comparisons to Miles, but the Davis album this one most resembles isn’t necessarily the one you’d think: With its brittle bedroom production, Bitches is less like jazz-rock fusion, more like the kinds of albums Miles made after Tutu, when he had basically given up on jazz in favor of his own take on primitive, pop-wise R&B. Another apt comparison: Prince at his most lo-fi and homespun.

This is all to say, I guess, that Bitches is not a jazz record at all, but a slow-jamming soul record—and also that it is really weird. The tempos of these songs suggest babymaking jams, and I guess it is a kind of introspective bedroom record, but it’s the strangest but of after-hours philosophizing you’re likely to hear. Payton sings in a fine voice that’s pitched somewhere between plaintive Al Green and the more easygoing coo of, say, Maxwell. The backdrop is a lush and languid bed of muted trumpet, tinny beats and hand percussion, and washes of out-of-time synths. It’s a deliberately rickety ProTools rig with an 80’s electro tinge, and, I guess, some occasional jazz signifiers.

It’s also a very gentle and easygoing record, enough so that its weirdness almost breezes by you on first lesson; give it time, though, and its humor and panache will reveal Bitches to be a leftfield gem. These bizarre slow jams do, indeed, tell the story of a failed relationship, and their sonic trappings turn out to be oddly appropriate. The homemade feel of the album underscores how personal it is, what a true labor of love its creation was for Payton. (He calls it a “mixtape,” by the way.) And the peculiar anachronisms? They suggest, at least to me, that this is the work of a man of a certain age, and age where his basic views on love and romance probably began to form somewhere around 1983, but are still ever-evolving.

The songs are pensive and mix sexuality, spirituality, and honest human emotions—but they’re also funny! You can tell what a goofball Payton is just from some of the song titles, like “Togetherness Foreverness,” “Shades of Hue,” and “iStole Your iPhone.” The latter is the real standout for me, a riotous, funky number driven by spindly percussion and outright spite: “I stole your iPhone/ Cause you won’t leave me alone/… can’t give me a ring/’Cause you got nothing!” Meanwhile, “Freesia,” a spirited duet with Esperanza Spalding, marries a gentle thump, chilled-out Casio keyboards, and muted trumpet into what I’m tempted to call elevator music on steroids.

The funniest thing about the album, though, is how these odd numbers make the more traditional ones stand out all the more. I don’t just mean “Bitches,” which is pretty catchy, but also the Cassandra Wilson-featuring “You Take Me Places I’ve Never Been Before,” a lush and sensual love song and a true lovemaking jam. And then there’s “Give Life, Live Life, Love”—an irresistible number that moves from sweaty, soulful organ into piano improvisation. That’s right: Something resembling jazz!

But there’s more to Bitches than humor and quirks. This is an album with real heart and soul. It is thoughtful and deeply felt. Even the quirkier moments come with empathy and insight. Opener “By My Side” beings with references to birth control and Night of the Living Dead, but then Payton waxes philosophical. He says he doesn’t believe in karma, or in paying for sins of the past life, because looking backward leaves you like Lot’s wife. And that’s just the warm-up. “The Second Show (Adam’s Plea)” is kind of a New Wave take on Adam and Eve, beginning with a missing rib and moving very quickly to the Stone Age. Payton suggests that all of our problems can be traced back to Eden, and his case for it is certainly compelling.

So it’s an album called Bitches, and its cover shows a woman wearing a mask. You’d think it would be a little more mean-spirited. But it’s not, and it’s a better album for it. It’s funny, it’s warm, and it’s empathetic. It’s certainly surprising. It sounds like a lot of pain went into making it, and, after a year of record label limbo, a lot of pain surely went into releasing it. But Bitches is a joy to listen to.

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One response to “Nicholas Payton: “Bitches””

  1. Arthur Mankey says :

    Shame np is chronic

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