Don’t put Jon Batiste in a box.
The pianist, singer and leader of Stay Human, the band heard each night on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” is nothing if not versatile.
His new album “Hollywood Africans,” out this Friday, is John Lennon-esque singer-songwriter one moment, straight jazz the next, then Western classical, then New Orleans-style boogie-woogie. The 31-year-old Julliard graduate thinks the younger generation, “the Spotify generation,” is less hung up on labels and categories when listening to music. It’s certainly evident in Batiste’s mix-it-up approach.
“The first night of ‘The Late Show’ I had Mavis Staples, Buddy Guy, Brittany Howard from Alabama Shakes, Ben Folds, the horns from Beirut, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi, Aloe Blacc and more performing together,” he says when asked to recall “Late Show” musical memories. “Only a late night bandleader is going to play with Yo-Yo Ma one night and Nas the next.”
A stand out track on “Hollywood Africans” is Batiste’s interpretation of the Louis Armstrong classic “What a Wonderful World.” Batiste explains how the simple, repetitive pulse he plays with his left hand evokes Eastern styles, almost trance-like. In concert, he asks the audience to close their eyes and focus on the beauty of our planet “floating in space” and the responsibility we have to take care of her.
Like Armstrong before him, Batiste is a New Orleans transplant to New York. (And, yes, he’s been to the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, even getting a photo next to a giant cutout of the Great Satchmo.) “New York is the gateway to the world, and it’s definitely a magnet for people who come from a diverse city like New Orleans.”
While Batiste is currently on the road with “Hollywood Africans” — performing everywhere from Berkeley to Berlin — he’s extremely excited for a six-night residency at the legendary Village Vanguard in lower Manhattan starting October 30. The tiny club, where one has to walk past the backstage area to reach the restrooms, is teeming with history. “I’ve taken some fan photos with heroic musicians there, myself,” Batiste confesses.
As a late night bandleader, though, Batiste is front-and-center to an amazing cross-pollination of styles. He mentions how Ed Sheeran (who covered Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” with Stay Human on the show) was particularly taken with Batiste’s “love riots,” the semiregular impromptu street performances that can cause a viral Manhattan ruckus.
Batiste is also well aware that he’s part of a very special club. You might be happy to learn that the late night bandleaders do, in fact, all know one another. “The Tonight Show’s” Questlove and Batiste were familiar beforehand (indeed, in 2014 Questlove once listed Batiste’s live show alongside Beyoncé and Prince as a three-way tie for show of the year), and he and Kevin Eubanks had an “hourslong” chat to discuss war stories of working late night.
And after an introduction from Chevy Chase, Batiste went out to dinner with the former musical director at “The Late Show,” Paul Shaffer. “He told me to always be on. And on the first day of the show, I got what he meant.”
Batiste working on Basquiat musical
Jon Batiste will write the music and lyrics for a Broadway-bound musical about the life of New York City artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, producers Alan D. Marks and Barbara Marks announced this week. “I want people to leave this show inspired to create,” said Batiste in a statement, adding that he hoped the project would help people gain a better understanding of Basquiat, an influential artist known for raw, edgy work whose career was cut short when he died of a drug overdose in 1988 at only 27. John Doyle, who won a Tony Award in 2006 for his Broadway debut “Sweeney Todd,” will direct. (NEWSDAY)