Jon Batiste shifts speeds in a spirited solo show at the Sinclair
CAMBRIDGE — On “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” Jon Batiste (the show’s musical director) and his band Stay Human are all high-energy pop and New Orleans funk, with snippets from American jazz standards. In the first of two sets at the Sinclair on Wednesday, Batiste, playing solo, delivered plenty of energy, but there was also quietude and nuanced expression to go along with his virtuoso chops and capacious personality.
This was Batiste’s first Boston-area stop for his “Solo in the Round” tour, a precursor to an album due later this year, produced by T Bone Burnett, with just Batiste singing and playing.
At the Sinclair, a grand piano — along with a small drum set — was positioned on a riser in front of the stage, surrounded by audience members. Batiste entered to cheers and applause, carrying a clarinet. He silenced the sold-out crowd with a low, sweet, and slow take on Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.” You could have heard a pin drop. Batiste was asking for space, and the crowd gave it to him. He stepped off the riser, still playing, and asked, “Y’all know the words? Let me hear y’all.” The crowd obliged, singing quietly.
An arrangement of Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” turned into a bluesy plea for love (“When it comes to loving me/Don’t stop”), which segued into a jazzy instrumental take on “Pure Imagination,” from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” When the fanciful melody turned to pounding fortissimo bass chords, Batiste stopped, said, “Hey, hey,” reeling himself back in, slowing down, quieting himself.
Throughout the hour-plus set, Batiste’s embrace of the audience was matched with interior focus, and he made occasional allusions to the contentious mood of the country. He played the hoary, gothic New Orleans standard “St. James Infirmary Blues” with Chopin-esque flourishes, modulating his voice through verses and piano passages. “Kenner Boogie” — for his hometown, in Louisiana — rocked with a call-and-response part for the audience, broke for a drum solo, and then found Batiste grabbing his melodica and continuing up into the balcony. (Attendees of the late set said that Batiste actually led the audience out onto the street.)
He said that a new original, “Keep On,” was inspired by Bob Dylan’s loping beat. It sounded like “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right,” sung over a gentle piano shuffle, the voice growing ardent on lines like, “I was always scared to die.” Afterward, he said the poet Phillis Wheatley was another inspiration for the song.
He interpreted Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” as a ballad meditation, playing a mantra-like insistent left-hand beat, a little country dance emerging in the right.
“Wow, that was a lot for me,” Batiste said afterward. “That’s what I like about music. It slows things down.”
For the closing “Amazing Grace,” again on clarinet, the crowd hummed along wordlessly, before the room returned to silence.
At The Sinclair, Cambridge, Wednesday