*It took me weeks of playing phone tag with Jon Batiste, the ever-scrambling, ever-performing steward of music from southern New Orleans, before finally catching him on a sluggish Wednesday afternoon.
With our times zones being three hours apart–Batiste on the East Coast and me on the West–we kept hitting and missing, not to mention the relentless touring by his band (Stay Human) since putting the finishing touches on their latest compilation, “Social Music,” due October 15. The group is nothing to write home about–just five, 20-something year-old, world-traveling graduates from The Julliard School in New York, consisting of John, the lead, a drummer, alto saxophone, a tuba player and bassist–you know, everyday stuff.
“The relationship is there because we [Stay Human] have a strong belief in the fundamental values of music,” John explained during our conversation. “There are several elements to the music we play; but that’s the beauty of it. We all want to be part of the lineage in terms of American music.”
“Social Music is about the intent of the music itself not the genre,” he went on to say, “When you hear people talk about music they get excited–there’s a warmth. We play in the spirit of inclusiveness and human exchange. That’s what the genre is all about.”
After hearing a half-dozen sample tracks provided to me by John’s handler, I found myself wanting Advil and a cigarette. My head was spinning from the dizzying array of snares, high-hats, bass and brass instrumentation featured throughout each song. The desire for a smoke was to counterbalance the eargasm I experienced while listening.
When we finally connected via cell, I opened the interview with a simple question: how do you describe your music? The query, I had already known, was an impossible one to answer in black and white terms being that John’s reputation among his fans is…well, colorful. That’s because he’s next level eclectic–a far cry from your average purveyor of sound in that he amalgamates genres that normally wouldn’t step within 100 feet of each other under different circumstances. I tend to call it “Frankenstein” music (John calls it something else, but that’s for later). In response to my question he countered (after an extended pause), ” I don’t know, you tell me?” Embarrassingly, I had no answer. Good thing he elaborated.
“Many influences inspired the sound. The main thing would be the individuality of myself and bandmates,” Batiste explained. “Everyone says that every one has their own unique thing, the closer we embrace that, the more unique we become. It takes natural progression as an artist to find that–to rediscover those things that make us who we are. Growing up, my environment made me who i am. Now I’m expressing these things in music.”
He continued, “My lane in music is to be a friend and an advocate for the creative process and to represent the best of what we have to offer in terms of the culture. I want to represent the culture and the highest level of the musical tradition that lies within culture.”
In his quest to unite all that music–and culture–can bring, John has created a flawless example of melodic chaos, infused with Jazz, Gospel, Rock, Rhythm and Blues, Bluegrass, Folk and Classical music (hell…name the genre and he’s probably done some dabbling with it at one point or another). Adding to the uncanny nature of the New Orleans Native’s album, it never phases from one track to the next like in most others; it’s essentially one, perpetual song.
“It’s a major concept record,” Batiste explained further. “It’s not song after song. it’s one piece. it’s from beginning to end without pausing and skipping. The nature of that comes because the sound itself is basically a montage. its many things put into one cohesive statement. It’s really going to be something that people are going to respond to in different ways depending on their temperament.”
“The Gospel element comes from within all of New Orleans music,” John added. “I’m a subscriber and believer of what Gospel music has to offer and the message it contains.”
I don’t make a habit of judging books from the outside, but in John’s case, I had already guessed his favorite artists before even asking the question. That’s why it didn’t surprise me when he, a dyed-in-the-wool Jazz aficionado, began rattling off 20 century pioneers of the genre. In more ways than not, John’s approach to song-making represents the congenital American flavor of “Ragtime” music, but remains contemporary in feel (not an easy feat by any stretch of the imagination).
“Thelonious Monk, I listen to him a lot,” he shared eagerly. “I also dig on Stevie Wonder, Duke Ellington, Radio Head–man, there are so many great artists past and present.”
“I see it as a continuum,” John concluded. “There is never going to be anything in music that comes in the future that will be better than the past and it wont be worse. it’ll just add to the tradition and legacy of music. I want to be the next in line in the tradition of what is the best we have to offer in music.”
Use this link to pre-order: http://bit.ly/JBSocialMusic
Check out John Batiste’s live performance video for “Stay Human – Let God Lead”: