Keep it Shakin’ While We Can: Jon Batiste sings for his city

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“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image,” Joan Didion wrote. If she’s right, then the City of New Orleans must surely belong to the musicians who have at once ratified and expanded its traditions. Think of soul stirrer Irma Thomas, R&B shaman Dr. John, most of all the late and eternally-cool Allen Toussaint. Think also of the prodigious John Batiste, the singer and pianist who, as Stephen Colbert’s bandleader, stands as New Orleans’ most prominent cultural ambassador, smuggling Dixieland swing into mainstream America five nights a week. Batiste makes his major label debut with Hollywood Africans, also the first album he’s made without his unruly Stay Human collective, and it’s further proof of the gravity with which he assumes his emissary role: It’s music made by a man who knows he’s a keeper of the flame, and understands his duties to encompass both historical curation and progressive ideation.

If the album is about any one thing, it’s about the intersection between person and place—how geography and culture shape a man, and continue to exert a gravitational pull throughout his life. Given that, it’s important to know that Batiste cut Hollywood Africans in an old New Orleans church. It may also help to know that he made the album with producer and roots music impresario T-Bone Burnett, present not so much to shape the record’s sound as to preside over a séance, calling the rattling haints of Crescent City song and story into era-spanning communion. The result is a mixture of Batiste originals and sacred texts—a few ornamented by strings, percussion, or harmony singles, but most presented solo and unadorned. Burnett captures all of it with the same analog austerity he’s favored since Raising Sand, his Grammy-winning team-up with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. It’s a muted approach that seems jarring at first, diametrically opposed to the exuberance Batiste channels night after night on The Late Show, yet it’s ultimately the right choice for an album that shows off a different side of Batiste—earnest, meditative, grateful in his acknowledgement of the giants who have come before him, humbled to reveal how he’s built on their achievements.

You can hear it in his engagement with some of New Orleans’ most hallowed documents, like a shimmering and blissed-out reading of the Louis Armstrong staple “What a Wonderful World.” Batiste sings it not as a feel-good anthem so much as a meditation on holy wonder and active gratitude; it drones where Armstrong’s exults, and feels almost liturgical in its calming resonance. There’s also a reading of “Saint James Infirmary Blues” where the artist is comfortable enough with the song’s familiar contours that he can both lean into camp (listen to the disembodied voices and funeral-march horns that haunt the song’s periphery, like the ghosts of all the New Orleans bluesmen who’ve performed it before) and sprinkle in his own goofy humor (“she ain’t never gonna find another sharp-dessin’ piano player like me,” he winks), all while upholding the song as a serious piece of folklore.

These gently revisionist histories set the parameters for Hollywood Africans, where tradition exists not to be recited into the public record but to provide a malleable language for personal expression—and Batiste takes that even further with his originals, the best of which are instrumental. Opening song “Kenner Boogie,” named for the New Orleans suburb where he honed his chops, is a blazing three-minute history of stride piano, encompassing everyone from James P. Johnson to Little Richard in its raucous two-handed fury. “Chopinesque,” meanwhile, belongs to a lineage of jazz compositions that keep one foot in classical sophistication, the other in the free-flowing logic of swing (think of Mingus’ brainy ballets, Ellington’s symphonic masterworks, or Brad Mehldau’s luxuriant After Bach).

Batiste is eloquent in his native tongue, even as he bends it to his modern dialect. You might think his carefully-plunked melody on “Green Hill Zone” is a lost Solo Monk outtake, at least until the strings enter—but actually, it’s a melody snatched from Sonic the Hedgehog, a video game that shares bandwidth in Batiste’s head with shopworn standards like “Smile” and “The Very Thought of You,” both played straight here. There’s also “Mr. Buddy,” a ruminant and tender-hearted recollection of a childhood mentor or teacher. The deeper Batiste goes into the rhythms of his city, the more they seem to shake loose these remembrances, and the more fully his personality blossoms; what seems at first like a travelogue reveals itself to be a self-portrait, and an argument that person and place are never fully separable.

All of that lends gravity to the closing song, a Batiste original called “Don’t Stop.” A pensive waltz, the song urges open-hearted, resilient love; in another context, it might sound naïve, but here it’s a bloom of hope planted in a very particular soil, the same soil that nurtured Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and Toussaint’s “Yes We Can.” “Let’s keep it shakin’ while we can,” Batiste sings, sounding not quite like all the cats who kept things shakin’ before.

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