Sound check: Pianist Jon Batiste to bring love riot to Akron

By Malcolm X Abram
Beacon Journal pop music writer

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Jon Batiste and Stay Human (from left) Joe Saylor, Jon Bastiste, Eddie Barbash and Ibanda Ruhumbika. (Peter Lueders)
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Tonight at E.J. Thomas Hall there will be a love riot.

But don’t worry. There won’t be some sort of violent orgy on the stage of the stately concert hall at the University of Akron. No, it’s New Orleans native and current New Yorker Jon Batiste and his band Stay Human who will bring a riotous amount of musical love to the venue.

Batiste — a pianist, melodica player and singer — comes from a legendary New Orleans family that includes the great clarinetist Alvin Batiste, who taught prominent jazz musicians including much of the also legendary Marsalis family, trumpeter Terence Blanchard and others.

Though only 27, Batiste, who gave his first big piano performance at the age of 9, has had a full career. The New Orleans Center for Creative Arts and Juilliard graduate has performed and/or toured with Prince, Cassandra Wilson, Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, Jimmy Buffett and Lenny Kravitz.

He is quietly recording an album with Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith (Batiste has been a fan of RHCP since high school) and veteran producer/bassist Bill Laswell.

When not on the road, Batiste is also the artistic director at large of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. But his current obsession is his band Stay Human and its debut album Social Music.

The core band is Batiste on piano and melodica, drummer Joe Saylor; tuba player Ibanda Ruhumbika and alto saxophonist Eddie Barbash. For the tour, the band’s first major global jaunt outside its Manhattan home base, Stay Human is augmented by bassist Barry Stephenson; Jamison Ross on percussion, vocals and laptop, and trumpeter Stephen Fowler.

For Batiste, music is about reaching, communicating and connecting with all people. One way Batiste and Stay Human reach out is through “love riots.” Band members will either spontaneously break out their instruments in places such as the NYC subways (they recorded an entire record, MY NY Jonathan Batiste and the Stay Human Band EP in the subways) or on the streets near festivals or the venues at which they are performing.

Social Music, just as with the band, covers an impressive amount of musical ground given its relatively short running time of a dozen songs in 38 minutes. There is the lovely opening duet D-Flat Movement, which finds Batiste playing a simple melody backed only by the crack of thunder.

There is straight-ahead jazz in the simmering, swinging groove of San Spirito and a cover of pianist/composer John Hicks’ Naima’s Love Song, an intense, bluesy take on the hoary classic St. James Infirmary, uplifting, positive-minded R&B in Let God Lead and the staccato funk of Express Yourself (Say Yes), and a humorous New Orleans-inflected tune, It’s Alright (Why You Gotta).

E.J. Thomas Hall will use the intimate Stage Door setup that puts the band and the audience on the stage, which should be perfect for the band that enjoys getting off the stage and into the audience. Here are a few questions with Batiste as he was “in a van … driving … on the way to Iowa.”

Q: You’ve been traveling the world since you were a teen, but having the band leave New York and spread the word must be exciting, no?

A: It’s exciting because these guys are the band. Most of these guys went to Juilliard and the ones that didn’t go to Juilliard I know from living in New Orleans. I’ve been knowing these guys for a long time it’s like a band of brothers. So we’re going out there and playing this music but the experience is also the developing of our relationship as men together.

Q: This tour is taking you and your band of brothers to new and different venues like Akron?

A: I love going to places like Akron because you think about New York and there’s music everywhere in New York. It’s a cultural center in the same way New Orleans is. They’re both unique, but they’re both definitely places where there is always a strong musical culture present. But when you go to a place like Akron … and we’re bringing Social Music to a place where there isn’t a big scene or artistic movement going on, I love that because you can create one over time.

Q: Explain the concept behind “Social Music.”

A: Social Music is whatever you want it to be. It’s less about what genre we’re playing and more about the intent of the music. In this modern era where things have become so integrated and accessible through the Internet and just modern technology, there’s this dispute in the artistic community between different styles of music and genres and rather than getting into all of that … we decided to define it based upon the intent of the music which is to bring people together no matter what they like and or whatever their background is.

Q: You’re among the leading young jazz-based stars along with folks such as Robert Glasper and Esperanza Spalding. Does their crossover success encouraging for you and Stay Human?

A: Both of them are people I have some relationship with and we’re in the same community. We’ve all spent time together on the scene in New York and I’ve seen them when I’m on the road when I’m going to all the different festivals.

Our whole circle and whole scene is basically talking about how it’s a different era right now. There’s something in the air that’s never been in the air in this artistic community before. And I think the listeners in the audience feel the same thing. It’s something where people are ready for a sound or style of music or something that is genre-less.

… It’s kind of like people are reflecting where the times and the culture has gone and the music is always going to reflect that. So I think seeing stuff like what Esperanza is doing and what Robert is doing it just a reflection of where we are and I think that’s going to develop over time in every genre of music.

Q: You guys are known for going into and interacting with the audience. How important a part of the show is that and why?

A: I think it’s important for us to bring that energy of what we call a love riot to every venue and transform the space. … [We] bring the music to [people] where we are. So going into the audience [has] always been something I feel breaks the invisible wall between the performer on stage and the audience sitting in their chairs, lower than you looking up at you while you’re performing.

That dynamic isn’t always the best at creating that energy that we call a love riot. It’s breaking the formality and it’s also bringing a certain ritualistic communal nature of what music has always been in folk cultures and the tradition of a lot of different styles of music just bringing that back to the performing arts center and the concert hall setting and making it not only less formal but more communal.

Malcolm X Abram can be reached at mabram@thebeaconjournal.com or 330-996-3758. Read his blog, Sound Check Online, at www.ohio.com/blogs/sound-check, or follow him on Twitter @malcolmxabram.


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