It’s not too often one sees 55+ adult faces light up like a five-year-old’s face on Christmas morning but this is what you get when you bring Jon Batiste for a solo show at Chapman’s two-year-old Musco Center for the Performing Arts.
In truth, there were people of varying ages in attendance Friday night, their faces set aglow by the nearly two-hour set the New Orleans-bred musician put forth.
By launching their 2018-2019 season with 31-year-old Batiste, Executive Director Richard T. Bryant grounds the season in high-quality while harnessing the power of a young artist who has something to say.
“Jon Batiste is an ambassador for the future of jazz, and his performance will set the tone for an incredible season ahead. He is an undeniably charming and gifted performer. We’re thrilled to present Mr. Batiste as Musco Center continues to attract artists at the forefront of their craft,” Bryant tells us in a written statement.
Anyone familiar with Batiste knows he leads “Stay Human”, the house band for The Stephen Colbert Show and might also know he is a Juilliard grad, an absolute shark on the piano, an emotive singer, and both the embodiment and evolvement of a New Orleans musical legacy. Oh, and quite a snappy dresser.
Batiste is also on a personal quest to unite people through music. This might be an obvious sentiment but he is so committed to the cause that his entire performance style is dedicated to it. In fact, one could argue that in order to master classical, jazz, pop and blues the way he does, it was necessary to literally absorb all the ways music has united Americans. After all, this is how our unique sonic gifts to the world were achieved: by combining echoes of ancestry, slavery, poverty, rejection, hope, prosperity, angst and anger— forged in music.
Before we could even articulate our desire to be united, musicians were figuring it out, sewing a quilt from scraps of strife and tradition.
I’m not sure if Batiste wakes up every morning thinking of all that, but he’s certainly aware that in these divisive times we need reminding of our shared heritage. We need to forget at the same time we need to remember. We need a deeper joy. We need a Christmas morning in September.
However, being a uniter doesn’t mean a lack of conviction. Both he and Stephen Colbert share a common goal of seeking out and telling the truth he says. I swore he said something along the lines of “That’s why I support Colin” (meaning Colin Kaepernick?) I’m not positive. If he did, it was said in a tone muted enough that I might have mistaken it for something else. In any case, his power lies less in telling and more in showing and sharing.
After an artfully shot intro video, Batiste strode on the Musco stage in a Millennial’s tux: tight black pants, a kind of black and white Western dress shirt, and a black jacket with subtle sparkles, with his hair coiffed in a short Afro. Despite the grand trappings of the state-of-the-art performance space, he assures us this is (almost) like a session in his living room. He likes the freedom to free associate, not knowing what he will play next.
Still very young, Batiste has been playing for so long and is so musically masterful and at ease with an audience that it’s hard to believe he is improvising in any way. “ I can be ADD without a band” he quipped after introing with a Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings number. Fittingly, he was off to play with the late blues singer’s thirteen piece band at the Monterey Jazz Festival.
The ensuing set felt like a well-orchestrated whirlwind through Americana with some classical thrown in for good measure. Beethoven inspired a cut from his new album, Hollywood Africans produced by T-Bone Burnett. “Don’t Stop” begins with the familiar opening melody of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata “No. 14 (Moonlight Sonata)” and then sustains its rhythm while veering into a haunting, uplifting bluesy ballad, Batiste’s voice evoking John Legend in the chorus.
The performance veered into epic territory as Batiste went into an original piece dedicated to his hometown of Kenner, Louisiana a suburb of New Orleans. “That doesn’t always happen in the living room,” he said as he picked up the piano bench he had kicked back in a Little Richardesque rock moment.
Then, if the audience couldn’t be any more charmed and delighted, he took his harmonaboard, an accordion/harmonica hybrid (melodica) into the audience. Encouraging us to stand and be free, we sang with him to familiar standards from “When the Saints Go Marching In” to “Amazing Grace.” For a moment, time seemed to stand still as we all enjoyed each other. Giddy smiles abounded.
Coming back to the piano, he pulled us in a more raw direction uncovering the blues underpinnings of the Miley Cyrus hit “Wrecking Ball” and pulled in some sexy Sam Cooke. After a standing ovation, he came back for an encore, a cover of Louis Armstrong’s “Wonderful World.” His take on the classic came with a healing touch as he encouraged us to close our eyes. No mistake, this meditative mood was born out of a recording process on Hollywood Africans in which he and Burnett recorded in a darkened church.
With many years ahead of him yet, I can envision a legacy for Batiste something akin to Ray Charles: nothing short of a national treasure. Artists of this kind can take us from the perils of adulthood to the joy and innocence of a child and back again proving that Christmas sometimes comes at the end of a rough winter, but it always comes and when it does, we’ll celebrate together.
Jon Batiste’s solo album, Hollywood Africans comes out on Friday, September 28th via Verve Records. He recently announced he will be composing a new Broadway musical inspired by the work of the late artist Jean-Michel Basquiat.
For the full 2018-2019 season calendar for the Musco Center for the Performing arts: http://muscocenter.org/events/