‘Hollywood Africans’ by Jon Batiste Review: A Meditative Moment, Away From Late-Night TV’s Glare
With his new album, pianist and singer Jon Batiste finds a softer spotlight.
Oct. 2, 2018 4:44 p.m. ET
Tall, lithe, laid-back yet quick-witted, flashing broad grins that look alternatively knowing or goofy, Jon Batiste plays the perfect sidekick as Stephen Colbert’s “Late Show” music director. When the camera finds him at the piano Mr. Batiste is a leader, directing his Stay Human band through a wide range of music. Roaming the studio audience with his melodica, the mouth-blown reed-and-keyboard instrument he calls a “harmonaboard,” he whips up excitement.
Prior to landing on national television, Mr. Batiste, who is 31 years old, found his voice by casting off conventions. On “Live in New York: At the Rubin Museum of Art,” released in 2006, while he was a Juilliard student, Mr. Batiste sounded like a straight-up jazz pianist wearing his affection for Thelonious Monk’s spiky arpeggios and dissonant tone clusters on his sleeve. A few years later, at Manhattan clubs, he’d segue from Monk’s “’Round Midnight” to Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” with purposeful ease. Much of his 2011 album, “My N.Y.,” was recorded in the subway, on a moving A train. “Social Music” (2013), was meant “to create a spirit of togetherness and community at a time when things have become more synthetic and virtual,” he told me in an interview. This was extroverted music, slyly challenging but utterly accessible.
On his new release, “Hollywood Africans” (Verve), Mr. Batiste comes out of the gate hard and fast. The opening track, “Kenner Boogie,” evokes a lineage of New Orleans pianism: Champion Jack Dupree’s propulsive boogie-woogie; the groove-based magnetism of Fats Domino’s early rock ’n’ roll; the tumbling Afro-Caribbean beats of Professor Longhair’s jazz-colored rhythm-and-blues. The title refers to Kenner, La., the suburb of New Orleans where Mr. Batiste grew up, which is also home to jazz’s Marsalis clan. He, too, hails from a musical family: At age 8, he played congas in the Batiste Brothers Band, a New Orleans funk group, alongside his father, Michael, who plays bass. By 11, he’d taken up piano.
The rest of “Hollywood Africans” may come as a surprise—a revelation, even—for Mr. Batiste’s fans. The mood, crafted with producer T Bone Burnett, is introspective. Even the most declarative tracks suggest vulnerability. Mr. Batiste combines well-known songs and original compositions to form a fairly seamless statement that nods toward legacies but sounds personal. Two-dozen musicians play or sing within these 11 tracks, yet throughout his piano playing and singing commands the foreground. Even so, he manages to project humility.
Mr. Batiste’s version of “What a Wonderful World”—made famous by Louis Armstrong and too often interpreted in syrupy fashion—is built on a single-note drone and sung earnestly, like a prayer. Elsewhere, Mr. Batiste celebrates classical forms, but in gently swinging, blues-inflected manner. His “Chopinesque” draws its theme from Chopin’s most celebrated Nocturne, Op. 9, No. 2. Mr. Batiste’s own “Nocturne No. 1 in D Minor” is grounded in the bamboula rhythm, an African influence that composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk showcased in a Romantic-era classical piece, and that permeates New Orleans music. In between, Mr. Batiste sings and plays “St. James Infirmary Blues,” a song of enduring relevance in New Orleans. Unlike his version on “Social Music,” which built into raucous celebration, this one stays mournful and feels stately. Mr. Batiste intends this as a sort of classical music, too.
Throughout, careful production details achieve a spare and delicate ambience that is mostly lovely but sometimes unnecessary. Mr. Batiste’s playing alone, without the prominent tape hiss, might suggest the silent-film origins of “Smile.” Yet most of these touches—the gentle pulses of Bashiri Johnson’s brushes (against a cardboard box, according to Mr. Batiste) on “The Very Thought of You,” for instance, and the subtly manipulated reverb in the mix of “Is It Over”—deepen tenderness and heighten drama. That latter track—a convincing original song about a heartbreak (or, by song’s end, maybe not)—drips with gospel feeling. Mr. Batiste’s pleading vocal leans up into notes and his chiming piano chords lay back on the beat, balancing desperation and restraint.
Through his song choices and his performances, Mr. Batiste implies a tension between pure joy and deep sadness. His original lyrics focus on love’s many manifestations. The album’s title, “Hollywood Africans,” is borrowed from that of a 1983 painting with which Jean-Michel Basquiat made stark and complex statements about the dualities and indignities facing African-American performers. Compared to Basquiat’s brashness, Mr. Batiste is gentle and mannered; he’s no radical. Nonetheless, his new music represents a bold professional move and an elegant meditation on complicated truths from a young black man thrust into stardom, still sorting out traditions of richness and pain.
—Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz and Afro-Latin music for the Journal.