Jon Batiste is the Newport Jazz Festival’s Mr. Everything
NEW YORK — It was business as usual one recent afternoon as the namesake host and Jon Batiste came bounding onstage to whip up an already warmed-up audience at the Ed Sullivan Theater just before the taping of that night’s “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” Their paths crossed as they darted in opposite directions at the front of the stage, and a couple of members of Batiste’s band Stay Human strutted onstage behind them, energetically playing hand drums to further rev up the audience.
Batiste and the band then took their places and did their thing once the taping was under way, laughing at Colbert’s jokes and keeping the audience charged up and entertained with virtuosic, upbeat music during breaks between guests.
A few hours earlier, Batiste had sat up from a brief post-soundcheck lie-down on his dressing room couch to discuss his career away from his day gig, which will bring him to the Newport Jazz Festival for “Jon Batiste and Friends,” Friday’s opening night concert at the International Tennis Hall of Fame. Batiste will celebrate the release that same day of “Anatomy of Angels,” recorded live over several nights at the Village Vanguard this past fall.
Joining him at Newport will be the band from that album and four guests: Ethan Iverson, ELEW (a.k.a. Eric Lewis), PJ Morton, and Corrine Bailey Rae — each of whom will perform at Fort Adams on other festival stages this weekend.
“I wanted to look at the schedule and see who would be there around that day, and really make sure that I could put together a show that featured a range of different styles of music,” Batiste explains, looking stylishly casual in a T-shirt and sweatpants before changing into a suit for the taping of that night’s show. “That’s what’s great about Newport: There’s so much that you can hear, so many different styles — different styles, I think, create a really rich performance. You have people from all walks of life coming onstage: jazz, R&B, hip-hop, folk. It’s beautiful.”
Batiste, 32, is already an old hand at Newport. He played a short but dazzling solo set as far back as 2012, sandwiched between the Preservation Hall Jazz Band and headliner Dr. John for that year’s New Orleans-themed opening night. Last year he was featured at both Newport’s folk and jazz festivals, organizing a star-studded, protest-oriented set titled “A Change Is Gonna Come” to close out the former and introducing music from his T-Bone Burnett-produced solo album, “Hollywood Africans,” at the latter.
Friday’s performance will likewise include new music, according to Batiste.
“We’re going to be playing a lot of music that we’ve never played publicly yet, and then in between those songs we’re going to have special guests,” he says. “We’re going to play ‘Hollywood Africans’ songs, ‘Anatomy of Angels’ songs, and then guests and I are going to play songs that we rehearsed together.”
To judge by the album, the “Anatomy of Angels” music will be the closer to straight-ahead modern jazz than anything Batiste has previously played at the festival. Batiste calls it “celestial jazz,” and playing it with him will be his longtime trio mates Philip Kuehn on bass and Joe Saylor on drums, augmented on some songs by three of his favorite young horn players — Giveton Gelin on trumpet, Patrick Bartley on alto sax, Tivon Pennicott on tenor sax — and two members of Stay Human, Jon Lampley on tuba and trumpet and Negah Santos on percussion. (Louis Cato, also of Stay Human, played percussion on the album, and guest Rachael Price of Lake Street Dive sang its only vocal number, the ballad “The Very Thought of You.”)
“What I’ve done is I’ve created pieces made to be deconstructed in the moment,” Batiste says. describing his latest work. “The themes are the same, and the structure is the same. But instead of it being based on just the themes, it’s based on these different structures that fit together, almost like Legos, and we can put them together and take them apart in the moment. And it’s different every time we put them back together.
“I wanted to create something that was new, and innovative,” he continues, “and also if you listen to it and you’re not a jazz listener, it has such a deep spirituality to it that you’re going to connect to that element of it. And it will take you on a journey every single time.”
Christian McBride, Newport Jazz Festival’s artistic director, credits festival founder George Wein with putting Batiste in charge of Friday night when other possible scenarios they’d discussed weren’t coming together.
“George came in and said, ‘Hey listen, let’s just have Jon Batiste put something together, and let’s just call it “Jon Batiste and Friends” and put it all on him.’ And I said, ‘Hey, I think that’s a great idea.’ Jon is such an incredible personality, and people respect him as a musician, and whatever he does, I know it’s going to be great.”
Muses McBride, “I wonder if people really understand what a damn good musician he actually is,” noting that “when someone in the jazz world has that extremely rare opportunity to break that glass ceiling of mainstream stardom” it can obscure how talented that musician is.
This shouldn’t remain a problem for anyone who has heard Batiste reinvent “What a Wonderful World,” play piano on “Kenner Boogie” and “Chopinesque,” or sing his original “Don’t Stop” on “Hollywood Africans.” Or who will hear him and his new band soar on “Round Midnight” and the “Anatomy of Angels” title tune.
“Had the Stephen Colbert gig not come around, he still would have been extremely successful,” says McBride, stating what ought to be obvious. “Because he’s got talent, and he’s a hell of a piano player.”