In mid-February, during the ongoing pandemic-induced lockdown, the musician Jon Batiste led the first of what could become a series of unannounced live public performances in New York City (NYC). It was a pop-up performance fronted by the pianist, composer and singer at NYC’s Javits Center for an appropriately socially distanced and masked audience comprising around 50 healthcare workers in scrubs and fatigues. Batiste, who also leads the house band on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, was accompanied by many performers, including dancers such as Ayodele Casel; and the opera singer Anthony Roth Costanzo. Besides them, there were his bandmates from Colbert’s show and a troupe of other musicians.
After playing and singing for the audience, Batiste, playing a melodica (a reed instrument equipped with a keyboard), led an impromptu march of musicians—horn players, percussionists, singers—through the building, a part of which is now a vaccination centre where people were waiting for their jabs. The concert and the march worked as a mood uplifter, particularly for the health workers, many of whom have been working long, stressful hours for months on end. It also highlighted two aspects of Batiste’s musicianship. First, his music’s always-exuberant spirit; and, second, his origins in New Orleans, where musical parades are a traditionally joyous way to celebrate everything, including funerals.
Batiste, 34, has a rich musical heritage. He hails from a New Orleans dynasty of musicians with a rich and storied past. His family includes his father Michael Batiste, a bassist, Lionel and Milton Batiste, both members of brass bands from New Orleans, and composers Harold and Russell Batiste. As a child, Batiste began playing with his family band, the Batiste Brothers Band.
An eclectic musician, Batiste’s music spans a range of genres: traditional big band jazz that is typical of New Orleans, but also R&B, soul, funk and pop. His versatility is remarkable and on his latest album, We Are, an aptly titled release during these pandemic times, those musically diverse generic strands are well showcased—R&B and funk woven into more conventional jazz, all of it peppered with hints of pop.
We Are is an ebullient album, guaranteed to lift your mood and bring some joy, an emotion that could be sadly lacking since the pandemic curtailed social freedom and resulted in widespread illness and a depressed global economy. The album is inspired by Batiste’s upbringing in New Orleans: the city’s music, of course, but also its food and culture, and, most importantly, its spirit, which is summed up by the Cajun French phrase “Laissez les bons temps rouler”. Roughly translated, it means, Let the good times roll.
The album has guests galore—from Batiste’s father, Michael, to Quincy Jones, the legendary producer and conductor, Mavis Staples, the blues and gospel singer, Trombone Shorty, the New Orleans horn player, and a host of others, including the marching band from Batiste’s own high school. In one of the songs, Show Me The Way, the novelist Zadie Smith makes an appearance as Batiste sings, hat-tipping several legends who have inspired him: I’ve been digging into Ella Fitzgerald/ Billie Holiday, Jonathan McReynolds/ When you talk about gettin’ in/ I wanna say, come on/ I really do/ Listening to Wu-Tang Clan/ Wanna drive down to the new Dazz band/ Stevie Wonder on the way home/ I wanna say, come on.
Among Batiste’s greatest influences are the jazz pianist, composer and band leader Thelonious Monk, and the soul singer Marvin Gaye. Batiste is a classically trained pianist but on his records, which include appearances with musicians such as Stevie Wonder and Harry Connick Jr, he also plays the organ and the melodica. For the Pixar film Soul, he collaborated with Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross to create the soundtrack. And while We Are may be a cross-genre album drawing from several styles of music, some of his solo albums are in the more traditional jazz style.
To get an idea of his talent on keyboards and vocals, one must dig into his back catalogue. On his 2013 album, Social Music, Batiste and his band, Stay Human (that’s the ensemble he plays with on the Colbert show), do a version of St. James Infirmary, a song Louis Armstrong made famous in the late 1920s, one which is especially evocative. On another album, Anatomy Of Angels: Live At The Village Vanguard (2019), he plays a version of his musical idol Monk’s famous Round Midnight, in his own groovy style—a fitting tribute to the jazz legend.
On 2011’s MY N.Y., Batiste takes traditional old tunes such as You Are My Sunshine, My Favorite Things, Isn’t She Lovely and New York, New York, and gives them New Orleans-style big brass band treatment that makes them feel both familiar and unique. It is an instrumental album on which bass horns, a funky rhythm and Batiste’s own keyboard lines create a Mardi Gras kind of atmosphere, perfect for a riotous party.
Coming back to We Are, Batiste’s latest, it is an album so upbeat that some critics have had issues with it being too happy. But that is quintessential Batiste. His music usually spreads optimism, making listeners feel good and tap their feet. The only criticism I have is that it is too short. The 13 tracks end in just 38 minutes. But there’s a quick-fix solution for this: just put it on repeat.
The Lounge list: Five tracks to bookend your week
1. Show Me The Way by Jon Batiste from We Are
2. Whatchutalkingbout by Jon Batiste from We Are
3. St. James Infirmary by Jon Batiste and Stay Human from Social Music
4. Round Midnight by Jon Batiste from Anatomy Of Angels: Live At The Village Vanguard
5. Isn’t She Lovely/New York, New York (Interlude) by Jon Batiste from MY N.Y.
First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.