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Toronto Centre for the Arts

Nicholas Payton is playing a risky game. The powerful young New Orleans trumpeter has fashioned a tribute to the late, great Louis Armstrong, whose 100th birthday is either July 4, 2000 (according to the story that Armstrong always told) or August 4, 2001 (according to the baptismal certificate that was located after his death in 1971).

Armstrong means different things to different people. To some, he's the first important soloist in jazz (apologies to Sidney Bechet), a trumpeter whose technical brilliance and improvisational prowess set the music on the course that it would take through the 20th century. To many others, however, he's simply the moist, gravelly voice of Hello Dolly, Mack The Knife and What A Wonderful World.

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So, jazz genius or pop singer? This dichotomy is not easily reconciled in a two-hour show, and Nicholas Payton didn't even try on Friday night at the George Weston Recital Hall. Instead -- here's the risky part -- he remade Armstrong's jazz legacy in far more contemporary terms.

Only with Wild Man Blues and West End Blues did Payton evoke Armstrong's style directly, quoting with reasonable accuracy from the trumpeter's original, late 1920s recordings. Otherwise, the Payton quintet's renditions of similarly classic tunes associated with Armstrong (from Tight Like That to St. James Infirmary) came with hard-bop or post-bop arrangements that, as hip as they were, obscured whatever traditional values the music once held.

Such a "tribute" could potentially satisfy no one. (No one, except the listener who believes that jazz cannot -- must not -- stand still, anchored inalterably to its past; oddly enough, when Payton plays his own music, as he has in other Toronto appearances, he himself seems to be stuck in the 1960s.) But this tribute was in fact respectfully, if not rapturously received; its triumph, modest though it was, belonged to Payton, not Armstrong.

Payton is a more discursive trumpeter than was his illustrious forebear, as most modernists inevitably are. His ballads were especially showy -- Body And Soul, his own Dear Louis and the encore, Stardust -- although not without a kernel or two of historical truth.

His fellow musicians remained resolutely, and at times excessively in the modern era, however, save for pianist Anthony Wonsey, who invented a suitable "stride" accompaniment for Body And Soul. Tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield, supported by Wonsey, bassist Sean Conly and drummer Adonis Rose, generated several small furies, paying his own tributes to the legacies of Jazz at the Philharmonic and John Coltrane. Payton, of course, matched or bettered Warfield for effect handily whenever necessary. Like Armstrong before him, he's not a musician to be topped.

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