For most of the decade it looked certain that Nick Payton meant to leave his mark as the greatest New Orleans trumpeter of the late 20th century–and with his rawboned swagger and molten-gold tone, he still could. But he seems to want even more. Still in his mid-20s, he’s dared to step outside the New Orleans trumpet persona–beholden to Louis Armstrong’s spirit and Wynton Marsalis’s technique–and threatens to become an important influence on the jazz mainstream. He’s not quite there yet: recently I got to hear him several times in ten days, playing with pretty much the same quintet he’ll bring to Chicago, and his sets displayed the same schizophrenia his albums do, veering from heartfelt traditionalism (his lovely cadenzas on “Stardust,” just sentimental enough) to studied and well-meaning modernism. But no doubt Payton will find a way to reconcile these impulses–to reach the emotional center of the newer music, which already fuels his intellect–and even now he offers a brimmingly beautiful timbre and some of the most lyrically refined trumpet work in contemporary jazz. His strong, if uneven, band leans heavily on reed man Tim Warfield, who’s fine on soprano and superb on tenor; occasionally he stifles a solo by turning too self-referential, but otherwise he hits target after target, serving as a busy foil to Payton and his concentrated melodicism. Tuesday through Thursday, 8 and 10 PM, next Friday and Saturday, December 10 and 11, 9 and 11 PM, and next Sunday, December 12, 4, 8, and 10 PM, Jazz Showcase, 59 W. Grand; 312-670-2473. NEIL TESSER

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Michael Jackson.