Joshua Payne’s music is inspired by a veritable yin-yang of influences. The local jazz-guitar giant gets his yin fix in the world of pop music, while he gets his yang off with experimental jazz configurations.
The former is with the Joshua Payne Trio, the latter with the Joshua Payne Orchestra. Both projects have become an outlet for Payne’s complete musical appreciation. However, although both share his name, they’re as different as Jay-Z and Miles Davis.
The Joshua Payne Trio gigs hard, playing an average of eight sets around town every week. The trio is essentially a cover band offering an entertaining mix of favorites—from “Walk on the Wild Side” by Lou Reed to “99 Problems” by Jay-Z. The familiarity of these tunes consistantly draws a crowd—a lesson Payne learned when playing the mean streets of New York City. However, these renditions carry a masterful originality, which hints at Payne’s original compositions created with the Joshua Payne Orchestra.
The orchestra’s recently released album of original material, Zoom, has a vibrant sound, which Payne describes as “modern Salt Lake City street music.” The 10-piece orchestra is famous for its impromptu midnight street performances around downtown. On the new record, they sound similarly ambitious and determined not to be drowned out by ambient road noise or drunk passersby after last call.
Beautifully pressed onto translucent vinyl, Zoom is musically uncompromising. Track “300” has a gyrating guitar melody that leads the orchestra through a steady, grooving backbone provided by the rhythm section—drummer Dan Thomas and stand-up bass player Ron Harrell. In “Zoom,” the brass section bursts layers of simultaneous improvisation, while the simple, deep drums pound on steadily. Moments like these on Zoom are where the atmospheric sensibility of a wild and bustling concrete jungle is sonically depicted.
Payne cut his chops on the streets. In 2000, the Utah native struck out to find a more notable jazz scene. That turned out to be the subway platforms of New York City. When he initially took his banjo underground, he played only original compositions—a period he says was characterized by saving change for slices of pizza.
His dependency on time-crunching commuters led him to be able to cover pop and rap songs convincingly. He was dedicated to jazz, but was in need of a more lucrative busking strategy and realized that this hurried audience simply responded better to covers.
Payne’s work in the metro stops didn’t go unnoticed, however. He was recruited to record and perform with Les Paul and collaborate with other jazzmen around the city. Despite somewhat “making it,” he didn’t stray from his admiration of pop music, which is still a major influence on the original material he writes with Joshua Payne Orchestra.
“New pop music is incredible,” Payne says. “Learning modern pop songs is one of the greatest things I’ve ever done, as far as studying music.” With similar reverence, he speaks of his jazz heroes: Bill Evans, Miles Davis and Charles Mingus—all of whom adapted the pop songs of their day into jazz standards.
Since returning home three years ago and reforming the Joshua Payne Orchestra, Payne has constantly been exploring his passions. Through his work with the 10-piece orchestra, the guitarist can channel his accumulated experience and creativity.
“This year, our creativity and chemistry has really clicked,” says Payne, adding that the admiration he has for his longtime orchestra bandmates continues to inspire him. “I am working harder than I ever have in my life. ... It is a dream come true.” With the fall evenings becoming increasingly too crisp for midnight street shows, JPO is spending more time in the studio and has created more than an album’s worth of new material in the past few months, Payne says.
Salt Lakers ranging from the general music appreciator to the jazz aficionado can hear Payne’s tribute to this city on Zoom and at shows almost every night of the week. While his pop-song-covering trio has a bevy of weekly engagements—a calendar can be found at JoshuaPayneOrchestra.com—the orchestra doesn’t have any shows scheduled currently. The group is eagerly looking to the future and to warmer weather, though, and plans to appear next year at the annual South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, in some capacity. Payne hints that it might be a street show.