A San Francisco Treat: Nicholas Payton, Otis McDonald, and Wil Blades Team Up In The Bay [B.Getz on L4LM]

photo: Upful LIFE

originally published on Live For Live Music

In a rare coalescing of supernatural talents, the stalwart squadron of Nicholas Payton, Wil Blades, and Otis McDonald linked up for a two-night engagement at Keys Jazz Bistro in the North Beach section of San Francisco. Performing an early and late set on Friday and Saturday evenings, the trio made a monumental impact on the ears and souls of the smart folks who made their way to this diamond in the rough of a room. The three amigos spent roughly 75 minutes mining their own catalogs—as well as touching on some timeless classics—to thoroughly satiate the ecstatic audiences.

Among the artists at the forefront of Black American Music, Grammy-winning Nicholas Payton is a multi-instrumentalist, vocalist, composer, producer, arranger, essayist, and educator who defies artistic categorization. On this evening, he was seated stage right behind a Fender Rhodes, with his trusty trumpet in tow, as well as a Fender bass guitar. Payton is no stranger to this region, as he logged a few years with the renowned SFJazz Collective.

On the stage left wing was the prodigal son of the Bay Area Hammond B3, Wil Blades. Longtime student to and collaborator with the late great Dr. Lonnie Smith, Blades is also a member of the Adam Deitch Quartet. Wil relocated to Los Angeles in recent years but remains very celebrated in these parts. Set up between them center stage was drummer Otis McDonald, himself an all-world, play-everything musician and producer; beloved in the Bay Area for his omnipresence and voluminous contributions to the local scene, and for working with many artists from Jazz Mafia to Eric Krasno.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Otis McDonald (@otismcdonald)

The team took off on a ride with “Big George” at the wheel; the opening salvo of Payton’s tune penned in homage to George Coleman, a saxophonist who made his bones playing with Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis over a half-century ago. On a number that had quiet storm-meets-Mama’s Gun DNA, Payton would oscillate between Fender Rhodes electric piano and ghostly trumpet melodies early and often. Blades dug into his clavinet as well as his Hammond B3 organ, with the Leslie speaker swirling sounds throughout the low-key, low-ceilinged haunt. McDonald kept the pace and the head nod intact with assertive, nuanced beat-keeping.

There was a heckler in the crowd, none other than Nigel Hall. A friend and collaborator with all three musicians onstage, Hall was in town for Lettuce’s performance with the San Francisco Symphony later that weekend. Blades acknowledged his presence and influence by unveiling his own “Hallways”, a Ronnie Foster-esque cruise down Linden Boulevard that doubles as dap for the trio’s enigmatic pal. “Hallways” had the hallmarks of Q-Tip and J Dilla sample sources, and Questlove-styled Soulquarian knock from McDonald on the kit.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Wil Blades (@wilblades)

Other highlights from this magnificent concert included Payton’s “Ultraviolet”, a song that boasts slivers of sauce and special scents for the lovers in the house. “Red Lanterns Are Blue” benefitted from Otis’ choice rimshots and funky flams, plus something akin to an Ernest Ranglin irie-vibe. Payton’s “F is for Axel Foley” landed somewhere between Miles’ Agharta and Aphex Twin; Nicholas gettin’ his mojo on the Rhodes with panache.

After joking around about his “Jodeci” nickname (courtesy of Nigel, of course), Otis McDonald led the group through his own wonderfully-reimagined take on The Beatles‘ timeless “A Day in the Life”. As the drummer sang a soulful tune, he gave new life to this cherished chestnut. Payton drove the vehicle with sturdy bass guitar, Blades throwing lyrical shrieks on the organ, the sum of the parts manifesting a rare and faithful groove. The Ray Charles version of “Drown In My Tears” brought a healthy slab of Black blues to the party, again with McDonald handling the vocals.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by ~B.Getz~ (@upful_life)

The trio left the stage to a raucous ovation, and the club manager brought them back out for an unplanned encore. Blades managed to coax Nigel from the audience to the stage, and clad in a Harlem Globetrotters jersey, Hall unassumingly took a seat behind the Rhodes, stage right. Instead of starting on the keys, Nigel picked up Payton’s bass, turned it upside down to play lefthanded, and the troupe tore into Stevie Wonder’s funkafied banger “You Haven’t Done Nothin’”, found on the exquisite 1974 LP Fulfillingness First Finale.

Payton subtly laced the theme on top with trumpet, Blades got busy on clavinet, the engine of this particular song. McDonald kept things extra sizzlin’ on the drums and delivered a competent Stevie vocal to boot. Hall laid down the low-end theory for a good while, and eventually passed the bass to Payton; then Nigel did his thing on the Fender Rhodes with trademark verve and gusto, and the now-quartet whipped the room into a veritable frenzy.

A joyful finale to the second of four fantastic sets from this virtuosic trio, nothing if not a spectacular San Francisco treat.

words: B.Getz