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At its heart, Smoke Sessions is something of Nicholas Payton’s callback to his own musical development. As an 11-year-old trumpeter and jazz aficionado, he was thunderstruck by Miles Davis’ live Four and More. Fifty-five years after that album’s release, Payton pays homage to the disc by recruiting two of its musicians — bassist Ron Carter and tenor saxophonist George Coleman — for the leader’s own take on Miles’ conceptual approach as a player and bandleader. Mission accomplished: Payton handily shows off his skills as a trumpeter, pianist and improviser on a relaxed, grooving set that also demonstrates his gifts as a composer.
Payton uses the occasion to pointedly salute his session mates. Coleman voices the airy melody of “Big George,” which floats over chiming piano before Carter and drummer Karriem Riggins slip into a disco-tinted funk groove and then straightahead swinging; both rhythmic feels make fertile beds for the saxophonist’s rangy solo. Carter is the honoree on “Levin’s Lope,” alluding to the bassist’s middle name, and his stately walking line sets the stage for Payton’s colorful explorations on Fender Rhodes and trumpet. Coleman, soloing and then tangling with the trumpeter, also takes center stage on “Turn-a-Ron,” another piece named for the bassist.
Smoke Sessions hints at the range of the leader’s musical influences and passions, with the funky opener “Hangin’ In and Jivin’” quoting the theme from ’70s sit-com Good Times. Meanwhile, the long intro to Keith Jarrett’s “No Lonely Nights” offers Payton a chance to focus on sublime balladry; the two-part “Lullaby for Lamppost (for Danny Barker)” points to his New Orleans roots; and the band traverses experimental, free-ish, effects-strafed terrain on “Toys,” by Herbie Hancock, the pianist on Four and More. It’s all refreshing, engagingly interactive and, yes, imbued with the spirit of Miles. — Philip Booth