ABOVE: JON BATISTE IN NEW YORK, SEPTEMBER 2013. STYLING: MICHELLE CAMERON. JACKET: MARC JACOBS. SHIRT: VERSACE. PANTS: BALENCIAGA. HAT: MR. KIM. SUNGLASSES: OLIVER PEOPLES. SCARF AND SOCKS: STYLIST’S OWN. SHOES: ROBERTO CAVALLI.
Jon Batiste is on a mission to bring jazz back to the people. The 27-year-old singer and virtuoso pianist is a scion of a New Orleans musical dynasty (the HBO series Treme, on which Batiste has appeared as himself, was in part inspired by his family, which includes percussionist Damon Batiste, composer and arranger Harold Battiste, and late Treme Brass Band leader Lionel Batiste). But while Batiste could have easily stayed in the world of “important” jazz, he chose to stray into less rarified realms—and take the music with him, by marching it out of its usual contexts, employing unexpected instrumentation, and writing songs that reflect a fearless and ferocious appetite for expanding the boundaries of the genre. “Jazz is always about the moment, and embracing what’s happening right now—it has a celebratory tradition,” says Batiste. “We need to take it outside the context of the concert hall and take it to the street without watering it down. People don’t dance to jazz anymore and that’s one of the problems.”
Straddling the lofty and the accessible has been a consistent theme throughout Batiste’s career. While pursuing his master’s in jazz and classical piano at Juilliard, he formed the band Stay Human with classmates who shared his taste for stretching the boundaries of jazz. With the group in tow, he would take his melodica (a portable, mouth-blown instrument with a keyboard) and perform in the New York City subways. In 2011, he even recorded part of his self-produced album, My N.Y., on a subway car while it was in motion. He is also known to lead patrons out of New York music venues and into the street in a transplanted version of the New Orleans second line.
Batiste’s most recent album with Stay Human, Social Music (Razor & Tie), reflects this theme. “Music is the soundtrack to social change—you can’t separate the two,” he says. “The album is my response to what’s happening in the world right now. It’s based in traditional jazz but it’s played with a spirit of inclusiveness.” This can been heard in the music’s vibrant pastiche of influences—from funk to world music chants to spirituals to hip-hop. The song “Express Yourself (Say Yes),” for instance, is a mad fusion of different styles of soul vocalizing and a head-bobbing network of terse melodica riffs. “Let God Lead” draws on classic soul in the vein of Bill Withers—except the bouncing bass line is played on tuba. But the overall effect is a cohesive, modern interpretation of jazz. “My question is always, How is jazz relevant to society?” says Batiste. “We are all always improvising in everyday life. So how can we apply those lessons to the social questions we face?”
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