Jon Batiste Lecture & Concert Review
Musician Jon Batiste held an afternoon open interview and evening solo concert at UCSB on January 11, via the Arts & Lectures Programming, in conjunction with the UCSB Music Department, sponsored by KCSB FM, KCBX FM, and Potek Wines.
Batiste honed his chops at age six as the drummer in a family band and tuned into piano at age 11. He zoomed into a steady career with both undergrad and grad degrees from Juilliard, to became one of Forbes top 30 under 30. He has a world-wide number one Jazz LP titled Social Music with his band “Stay Human.” More widely known for his stint as bandleader for the Late Show with Stephen Colbert, the reach of his work involves composing, touring, and educating what he calls at his tender age, the next generation in music. He is on tour with his recently released LP, Hollywood Africans, produced by T Bone Burnett, on Verve Records.
At the afternoon session, he arrived sporting his renowned good looks and threads, sitting at ease in the music department lecture hall fielding the curiosities of those attending. Key question highlights he expounded on:
What is music?
Batiste: Music expresses deeper meanings across time, capturing the knowledge of the time and passing it on to the next generation. Music shows us the ideals of who we are and the best of who we are, and some music drives us to be better when we listen to it. Our lives have a soundtrack.
Advice for those pursuing a music career?
Three things: specificity, understanding your options, and pursuing those who are better than you. Specificity gives you an opportunity to figure out what you like, what you want to learn and finding the sweet spot to get paid for it. Take as many gigs as you can, say yes to all even ones you don’t like as it leads you to specificity and understanding your options. Read All You Need to Know about the Music Business [by Donald S. Passman]; it will put you ahead of the majority of young musicians out there. Music is not just a pursuit you are passionate about, it’s an infrastructure. Read the book and understand the different forms of copyright, figure out how you can do what you want in music. Find the people you want to be with and learn from the most, try not to take no for an answer, use any source to be with them including YouTube. When I was young and on the road, my friend and I would sit and listen to music for four hours straight, we did a blindfold test and played obscure records and asked who was playing each instrument on the record, we learned a lot.
Who is changing the music industry right now?
There is a lot of change right now all because of the way that technology has impacted the infrastructure of music. You can tell a story on multiple platforms at the same time, it’s wide open and I can drop [music compositions] any time and anywhere. We are in-between the paradigms right now of the transition. We can make music anywhere by mixing tapes, you can record your LP anywhere, you don’t need an orchestra, you just find the loops and plug it in. All that allows for a lot of innovation based upon a shift that is not going to resolve anytime soon, and I think it’s a good time to be a musician.
How do you create?
Composing music is something I learned how to do being anywhere and doing anything. I figured out how to use my iPhone voice memos, write music on the laptop, so I can really capture the moment of what I am inspired by. I was writing at the hotel and got a bunch of napkins to write on – I stole this from Duke Ellington and hip-hop culture. It’s finding ways to shorthand things, and these napkins don’t look like much, but are part of the symphony I am writing. You have to figure out your way. The more successful you become the more responsibilities you have, but you have to keep the music going because that is how you got there to begin with, so that is how I survive, by keeping the music going.
How do you perceive yourself as a music educator and music education schools?
I educate via cultural exchange students programs and going to places and schools that don’t have music programs. For music education, schools get it right in having a program, after that it’s tough, the music programs are archaic teaching things that were relevant years ago, and it doesn’t really show people the power of music. The music ed programs don’t do music justice.
Listening to music digitally, records, radio, or live?
Listening to music on an LP is ideal in certain circumstances depending on what you want from the music, like listening to a studio album. For digitally tracked music, it’s best done by listening to the music on a device because there was a crafting of the controlling patterns and series to create it in the studio that you can never recreate live. For live stadium performances, say by Bruce Springsteen’s “Born In the USA,” you go to experience all these people relating to the music, of being together and you don’t care if it sounds like the studio recording. In more intimate settings like a 100 person room, theater or jazz club, there its important to see something come to life in front of you, the musicians having a conversation with each other and audience that you can never get in any other way.
In the evening, Batiste gave a solo concert at Campbell Hall. There he shone a light on the importance of a shared music experience. As dynamically as he walked to his piano on stage, so were the notes he brought forth out of it. His technique is precise, clear, and well trained. His compositions are either full on or gently simple. He could trill and drive baseline riffs simultaneously, pull out dual-hand contra-rhythms, invoke the classicists and others into the music, all as he breathed and moved on his bench to the feels of the compositions. At times, he would converse with the audience, and walked to them in the aisles for a “Love Riot” with his melodica (a mouth-blown reed and keyboard) playing “If You are Happy Clap Your Hands,” “The Star Spangled Banner,” and “Don’t Take My Sunshine Away.” The core set list contained 6 songs from Hollywood Africans: “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “What A Wonderful World,” “Kenner Boogie,” “Chopinesque,” “Green Hill Zone,” and “Don’t Stop.”
In reviewing the gig, I couldn’t refrain from thinking, what would Allen Toussaint and Miles Davis say? Would they applaud his incorporating already established works into his songs or take the purist tact and advise? The weaving was undeniable. The left hand drone note and tempo he added to “What A Wonderful World,” for what he says is like a meditation and brings out the joy of the lyrics to the listener, is well noted on the drone of Hindustani ragas, Louis Moreau Gottschalk’s “Bamboula,” as well as in Mick Jagger’s “Joy” (Goddess In The Doorway). “Chopinesque” takes more than 16 notes from Chopin’s Nocturne in E flat major, Opus 9, No 2, however let it be noted (pun intended) that Chopin borrowed the nocturne style from John Field, an Irish composer. And again Gottschalk appears here as well, perhaps because he became friends with Chopin while studying in Paris. Pervasively Batiste’s encore, “Don’t Stop,” is a definitive nod to Ludwig Von Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata,” first movement. For Bob Dylan lovers, it was clear that Batiste’s “Keep On Keepin’ On” is a song with the same key and notes of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright.” At the concert Batiste quipped, ” I played the song for Bob Dylan thinking he would like it, except Bob told me it sounded like one of his compositions and it would not be a good idea to put it on my new LP, so I’m going to play it live for you here.”
In the end, as we rose to a standing ovation, regardless if you are a purist who prefers all original compositions, or at ease with the blending of already established music, it’s clear Batiste is earnest on conveying a singular message: love who you are and spread the love to others. For him that love is music.