On "Social Music," they find a place and context for jazz - with the people.

Jon batiste photo
By Peter Lueders

When Jon Batiste appeared on Treme as a member of Delmond Lambreaux’s band, it was hard not to notice his hands. Cameras love the elegance of fingers on a piano’s keyboard, and the effect was more striking with Batiste, whose fingers seemed startlingly long on the show.

“My hands have always been for someone bigger than me and I haven’t quite caught up,” he says by phone from New York City. The Kenner native is now the artistic director-at-large of The National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and he has thought carefully about almost every element of his performance, starting with his fingers and technique. “I’m going to need different types of technique to accomplish my musical vision,” he says. The kinds of technique beginning piano students are taught - the position of the wrist, the curve of the fingers - “are there for a reason, but you have to put them in context, and the context is often found in the genre of music that you’re playing. If you’re playing classical repertoire, then that stuff is essential for you to get proper sound out of the instrument to make that music speak. But when you’re playing the blues or jazz, it almost hinders what it is that you’re doing.”

Batiste and his band Stay Human play the Zatarain’s/WWOZ Jazz Tent Saturday at 3:55 p.m., and they released their latest album, Social Music, last year. The title reflects his notion of his music as something defined by its circumstances, not by formal or musical characteristics. “We’re in the era now where things are more connected than they’ve ever been,” he says. “Socially we’re more integrated, and the cultures are more one in a global sense than they’ve ever been before. Music reflects what the culture is doing.” 

The democratic impulses reflected in the Internet and social media help to shape Batiste’s music. 2011’s My N.Y. featured his band performing live in subways, where he played original material and crowd-pleasing covers ranging from “You Are My Sunshine” and “My Favorite Things” to Katy Perry’s “Teenage Dream.” Even though he is best known as a piano player, his band can play in social circumstances because it isn’t tethered by electricity or furniture. Ibanda Ruhumbika plays a tuba - not a sousaphone, Batiste points out - and he often plays a harmoniboard, a four-octave, wind-powered keyboard. It’s differs from a melodica, which Augustus Pablo made an expressive instrument in dub, in that the harmoniboard is not a toy. The harmoniboard has a greater range than a melodica, and it requires him to think entirely differently about how he plays. “The piano is a percussion instrument; this is a wind instrument,” Batiste says. “The challenge is not thinking of it like a piano because you’re absolutely not playing a piano.” Because it is handheld, he can only play it with one hand, and the way he has to play it changes because the keys are vertical, not horizontal. It affects the lengths of lines because it’s wind powered, but it also offers possibilities. “I can bend notes. I can buzz. I can triple-tongue. I can do things that a piano just doesn’t do.” On “Teenage Dream,” he creates a slightly serrated sound on the chorus by trying to imitate trumpet player Roy Eldridge’s growl.

Social Music, unlike My N.Y., is very much a studio album. “The Jazz Man Speaks (Maple Leaf Rag)” features an excerpt of Jelly Roll Morton speaking on the Library of Congress recordings while Batiste and the band play “The Maple Leaf Rag” with a gallumping groove. On “Naima’s Love Song,” he overdubs synth parts. The additional parts are ones that Batiste hears but can’t play and doesn’t need live, where the energy of the moment fills in those missing pieces. “When you hear it, you get the same kind of impact you’d get in the moment, even though we weren’t playing those keyboard parts,” Batiste says. Otherwise, he says, “the record’s so old school.” Some backing vocals and atmospheric sounds were overdubbed, but the band played live, just as jazz has always been recorded. “Overdubbing didn’t fit the character of this album.” 

The album is accessible without sacrificing thought or ambition, but it’s the product of someone interrogating jazz’s place in our culture. “Jazz has become too much of an intellectual art form that has taken all the visceral and social elements out the music, therefore taking it philosophically out of our culture,” Batiste says. “There’s no mythology for jazz music that resonates for our time period. But when you hear Lady Gaga or Drake or Kanye West, you can think about situations in people’s everyday lives that they can apply that to.”

He thinks of jazz as “immigrants’ music,” and “thinking about that in the context of the world today is really powerful.” He hears causes for hope in jazz’s propensity for melancholy and its visceral elements. Those timeless elements speak to audiences regardless of their backgrounds with jazz and offer tools to help the music find a place.

Although his current career is New York-based, New Orleans shaped his music in intentional and unintentional ways. “The Stay Human lineup coincidentally resembles a second line,” Batiste says, but the tambourine playing of Joe Saylor on Social Music’s “Express Yourself,” “Naima’s Love Song” and much of My N.Y. owes a very direct, deliberate debt to Mardi Gras Indians. “That tradition is one of the only traditions you can draw from inside of America outside of the Afro-American church,” he says. “You can go to Brazil and there are different ways that they play the tambourine. You can go to countries that have used the tambourine as a sacred instrument over the years, but that kind of backbeat, bamboula-based rhythm that you hear in the gospel church and Mardi Gras Indians - I’m always pulling from that.”

His own playing can show the influence of James Booker, as it has at some previous Jazz Fests. “If I had to pick three big influences on my piano playing, they would be James Booker, Duke Ellington, and Thelonious Monk,” Batiste says. That influence shows up on the version of “The Star Spangled Banner” that closes Social Music.

“We in America represent a lot of what social music is all about,” he says. “You look at America and you see all the different cultures that blend here. To have that at the end of the album is very appropriate to represent what social music is all about.”