A Jazz Pianist Who Revels in the Art of Making Music

United StatesUnited States Jon Batiste and Stay Human: Jon Batiste (piano and Harmonaboard), Eddie Barbash (saxophone and washboard), Ibanda Ruhumbika (tuba and trombone), Joe Saylor (drums and tambourine), Barry Stephenson (electric and acoustic bass), Jamison Ross (drums and percussion), Zankel Hall, New York City. 12.10.2013 (BH)

Jon Batiste, Piano and Harmonaboard

Stay Human:

Eddie Barbash, Alto Saxophone and Washboard
Ibanda Ruhumbika, Tuba and Trombone
Joe Saylor, Drums and Tambourine
Barry Stephenson, Electric Bass and Acoustic Bass
Jamison Ross, Drums and Percussion

Playfulness in music can be woefully hard to find. But as pianist Jon Batiste sees it, there is a very natural desire to have fun, and part of his talent is making that fun seem artless. In his Zankel Hall debut, Batiste brought his three longtime collaborators—a.k.a. Stay Human—along with two guests, all of whom delivered almost two hours of sophistication, high energy and humor.

Batiste, who turns 28 in November, comes from a long line of Louisiana musicians and along with his colleagues, has a Juilliard pedigree. I had the good luck to hear his graduation recital, which was crammed with precocity and some sly joy, upending audience expectations. A riff by Thelonius Monk might suddenly veer off into a fragment of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, or a New Orleans song staple might find itself injected with a few bars of Scott Joplin. Batiste has chops, but also an astonishing ability to switch gears instantly, alighting on whatever crosses his mind.

As the lights dimmed, he and the crew marched down the aisle to barely more than a drumbeat for “Express Yourself,” first jamming in front of the stage, then scattering to stand among the audience. With Batiste on Harmonaboard (a.k.a. melodica), a biting beat by percussionist Joe Saylor, fluid saxophone of Eddie Barbash and tuba pumps by Ibanda Ruhumbika (who also plays trombone), the sold-out audience was prepared to cheer, even before the musicians had set food on the stage. One of Batiste’s many gifts is the art of making an audience feel welcome, happy and included.

Finally onstage, Batiste took his time introducing his prodigious piano technique, but did so with his own prismatic refraction of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” He can sing, too: the New Orleans classic, “St. James Infirmary,” turned into a slow, scorching hymn.

As the band plunged into a twisty, funk reprise of “Express Yourself,” Barbash played the same 7-note figure for ten hypnotic minutes—a rhythmic spine as Batiste introduced the personnel, with two superb guests: Barry Stephenson on electric and acoustic bass, and Jamison Ross doubling the percussion arsenal.

Two highlights came near the end, starting with a spare, intimate reworking of “Killing Me Softly,” accompanied by the gentle tapping of sticks on beer bottles. Ruhumbika slyly entered later with an extraordinary tuba solo, his delicacy and finesse matched with a plump, dusky tone.

And Saylor had a riveting few minutes all to himself, using only a small drum on the floor, sticks—and body parts—to alter the sound. Starting softly, ominously, a jittery riff appeared, alternating between the drum head and the rim. Eventually he leaned over, his left elbow resting on the drum surface while he played with his right. Then his left foot found its way into the mix, as he played under the instrument, striking the rim and the floor back and forth with the blur of a hummingbird.

At the end, Batiste invited the audience to “pretend you’re in kindergarten” and exercise their latent instincts to bang things, creating a gently compelling wave as Barbash and Ruhumbika offered discreet brass counterpoint. And for an encore, guest drummer Ross began a muted tango punctuated by common-sense hilarity, exhorting, “Why You Gotta Be Like That?” before the other musicians came crashing in to end it all.

Batiste wears his virtuosity lightly. He has a great ear for contrast: his touch on the piano can be gossamer, almost at the edge of audibility, and then a second later his fingers seem to have doubled in number as he attacks the keyboard. Often smiling, sometimes laughing, he appears to be marveling at the vast array of tools he has to demonstrate just how joyous making music can be.

Bruce Hodges