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Jon Batiste: Hollywood Africans
by George Graham
(Verve Records As broadcast on WVIA-FM 12/12/2018)
New Orleans has a rich musical tradition, being a large influence on everything from Dixieland jazz to early rock, to a distinctive style of soul. And in addition to the brass bands that are associated with the Crescent City, there are the pianists, including Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and Dr. John. This week we have a recording from a pianist who is a native Louisianan and was very much steeped in the New Orleans traditions, but went on to be come a versatile artist with a solid classical background, and is now known to millions of late-night TV viewers. He is Jon Batiste, and his new recording is called Hollywood Africans.
Jon Batiste was born into a family with a long line of musicians, including Lionel and Harold Batiste. Jon was playing drums and percussion in the family band, the Batiste Brothers Band at age 8. At the suggestion of his mother, he took up the piano with classical lessons. He is also said to have learned music from transcribing tunes from video games. He released his first album at age 17, and attended the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, and then went on to get his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the Julliard School in New York. He traveled extensively and performed concerts at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam at age 20, and Carnegie Hall where he was featured in a composition for orchestra, choir and jazz group.
In 2005, he began working with a band including some of his Julliard classmates which he called Stay Human, whose recordings included one made entirely in the New York subway system in 2011. Since 2015, Jon Batiste and Stay Human have been the house band for Stephen Colbert’s daily late night TV show. He has also appeared in a recurring role in the TV series “Treme” and was cast in Spike Lee’s film “Red Hook Summer.”
Batiste’s new album Hollywood Africans is probably his most intimate. It’s mostly solo piano with a some vocals, and there are some subtle orchestrations with an African-American Gospel-styled choir, a string section and a bit of a New Orleans style brass band. Batiste’s New Orleans background forms the underpinning of the album, often juxtaposed with his classical affinity. The album was mainly recorded in New Orleans and was produced by T Bone Burnett, a respected and eclectic producer known for his work on the “O Brother Where Art Thou” soundtrack and many other American roots projects. The result is an interesting record which is a very up-close portrait of the now 32-year old Batiste.
The material includes several original pieces, but also some familiar songs in the jazz tradition. The album opens with an original solo instrumental piano boogie, in a kind of composite of New Orleans piano styles. It’s called Kenner Boogie, named after the town where Batiste was born. <<>>
That is followed by the first of the vocals, a classically-influenced version of the ballad What a Wonderful World, made famous in the 1960s by one of the New Orleans giants, Louis Armstrong. It’s a very different take than how Satchmo did it. <<>>
Batiste’s juxtaposition of his classical and New Orleans sides is epitomized on the original track he calls Chopinesque, with some Chopin themes woven with the some of the bluesiness of the Crescent City. <<>>
That segues in the same key and tempo right into a version of a classic New Orleans tune St. James Infirmary Blues, which also mixes in some classical influence. A Gospel-style group of backing vocalists makes an appearance, followed by a traditional New Orleans funeral-style brass band. <<>>
Batiste includes a Tin Pan Alley jazz standard, The Very Thought of You which is done in a very pensive manner including his almost whispered vocal. <<>>
Another of the instrumentals is Green Hill Zone whose composer is listed as Masato Nakamura. The arrangement brings in the a string section giving the track a cinematic quality. <<>>
Is It Over is an original soul-style song by Batiste, with sad lyrics about a love coming apart. The group of backing vocalists makes an appearance making imparting an almost hymn-like quality. <<>>
The album ends with Don’t Stop another sort of a sad love song, again with a mixture of classical influence – the piano line borrows from Beethoven – while the words are like an old bluesy soul song. <<>>
Hollywood Africans the new album from pianist, composer, band-leader and occasional actor Jon Batiste, is an interesting record which personifies Batiste’s musical dichotomy, with one foot in classical and one foot in the New Orleans tradition. Those who know Batiste from his ebullient appearances as bandleader on the Stephen Colbert show will likely be surprised at how intimate this album sounds. While the credits show 24 added musicians, including the Gospel-styled choir and a chamber orchestra, those supplemental players are used very subtly. It’s mainly just Batiste and his piano, and largely material that is slow and laid back. So don’t expect a Mardi Gras party record.
Our grade for audio quality is close to an “A.” The sound is clean and well-recorded with what studio effects that are present being almost subliminal, and the mix maintaining the feeling of a minimalist sound even when the added players appear.
Jon Batiste’s new record could be a kind of rainy day album, or just something you would want to turn to to slow things down some. In any case, it’s a warm and personal visit from a versatile player.
(c) Copyright 2018 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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