If it’s hard for Jon Batiste to restrain himself and play just the odd chord, a magnificent riff; discharges a mighty harmonic progression punctuated by a burst of rhythm topped off with his characteristic laugh during an episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert he doesn’t let on. However, while that may be his proverbial “daytime job” he often cuts loose with an album – or two, in this case – when the stars align and the spirit moves him. And when the spirit moves him he almost always returns to his roots – The Blues and Jazz; tinged, almost always with that special sound which you will hear exclusively in New Orleans.
Of course, for from being an insular musician, Mr Batiste’s world view is broad – both historically and geographically. He can – and does – makes reference to his background in classical music studies – when the need arises, but even then his sound is singular and drenched in The Blues, with all of its gut-wrenching despair and sadness as well as its affecting hope and joy. This is the kind of music that you may have listened to on the profoundly mournful version of “St James Infirmary” as well as on “Chopinesque”, both from his exquisite 2018 recording Hollywood Africans. It is a sound so unique that only Black Americans – by virtue of singular lived experience – have access to.
Mr Batiste also has an unique lineage. He comes from a line of giants of NOLA that include Lionel Batiste, the iconic bass drummer and vocalist, who was also played the kazoo, in the Treme Brass Band. Another relative was Harold Batiste, a highly proficient saxophonist, pianist, arranger, producer and educator at the University of New Orleans [along with Elis Marsalis], whose first group included clarinetist Alvin Batiste and drummer Edward Blackwell, and who may be credited with introducing the world to the music of Dr. John by virtue of producing his earliest albums.
When you have that kind of ancestry, it’s hard not to want to carry on the tradition. Of course, it is not always easy to wear such a legacy lightly. But this is exactly what Jon Batiste seems to do. Two recent releases [both from an engagement at New York City’s Village Vanguard during the winter of 2018, the music is, by turns, hard-hitting in its message of Black lives, as well as hopeful, with a preponderance of celestial imagery and metaphorical references to the spirit world. Listening to this music, with this kind of sphere of reference, i.e., that it is conceived of as a Blaxploitation Experience and in the context of this era of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, it is easy to understand the anger of its content [especially in the case of Chronology of a Dream.
But Mr Batiste is also a millennial – more correctly a Gen Y-er – and so art – particularly music and dance – created with a patina of hope is easy somewhat easy to understand. [Poets, by contrast, are less hopeful and often angrier. Moreover, someone born and growing up in the 1940’s and 1950’s is also angrier and less hopeful; perhaps just less hopeful as Sonny Rollins came across in an interview he gave Daniel King for The New Yorker, published on June 11th, 2020. Mr Rollins, when asked what he thought of the ongoing civil-rights movements and specifically whether things have changed, bluntly responded: “I don’t think things will change in this country.” No “ifs” “ands” or “buts”…]
But even if the streets echo with a different kind of noise, hope seems to springs eternal in Mr Batiste’s music. Or at least it appears to, off the streets and in the environment of “social-distancing”. He continues to appear, from time to time, in videos – shot from two distinct and socially equidistant locations, no doubt. You will hear the same characteristic laughter punctuated by a bluesy chord or a jazzy riff. Mr Batiste’s is stymied by the fact that he cannot assemble with Stay Human, an ensemble, he says, which draws its inspiration from, as he says: “human interaction during a live musical performance can uplift humanity in the midst of the ‘plug in/tune out’ nature of modern society.” There are no impromptu street performances, which Batiste calls “love riots” either.
And so, all we have is this exquisite music made by an expanded ensemble comprising old and new friends and musicians. Mr Batiste followed ?uestlove [Late Night with Jimmy Fallon] as the bandleader of a major network television show band in 2015. This was shortly after he graduated from Julliard. Coincidently Mr Batiste is also music director of The Atlantic and the Creative Director of The National Jazz Museum of Harlem. This puts him in an unique position – like Wynton Marsalis who is Director of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra – of determining what Jazz we [see and] listen to. He leads from the front with his own albums of music.
These two most recent ones are eloquent examples of this. They come from the same place as all of his music, but particularly the musical sequence that began – so to speak – with Hollywood Americans [Verve, 2018]. The repertoire is steeped in The Blues and two of the most notable characteristics of that music of Black America: despair that leads to hope. The 2018 album was decidedly drenched in despair and songs such as “St. James Infirmary” and his [Mr Batiste’s] own breathtaking composition, “Is It Over”. On the  album he also showcases his magnificent vocal abilities. Emotions on the two live  albums under review show a slightly different side to Mr Batiste.