Album of the month / 2021 / 04 April
I love listening to music - gladly, all the time, everywhere. That's why I would like to share which music (or which album, after all I'm still from the vinyl generation ;-) I enjoy, accompanies me, slides up my playlists again and again...
Jazz (?) / 2021 / Verve Forecast (Universal Music Group)
You will rarely read a review about a current album from me. Because I need some time to decide which work will take which shelf space in my musical mind. And I always want to get to know the artist or artists better. This month there is an exception, because my album of the month is not even a month old. Or it's not an exception at all, because I've been looking forward to it. But let's start at the beginning. Or at two.
The historical beginning: a hundred years ago, mankind survived the Spanish flu. And after the horrors and privations, after death and illness, it had a lot of catching up to do. There was a spirit of optimism. For example, a district north of Central Park in New York City became a place of longing for thousands of blacks who saw no prospects for themselves and their families in the still racist Southern states. Harlem fired the imagination and pride of black artists and intellectuals, creating a climate of creative fertility. And from the neighborhood's basements, a sound found its way into the mainstream that would soon freak out people around the whole world: Jazz was born.
Sociologist and epidemiologist Nicholas Christakis, a professor at legendary Yale University, sees parallels to today. In his book "Apollo's Arrow," he analyzes how past epidemics have affected humanity and what connects them: Fake News and the search for a scapegoat. Uncertainty of the markets and economic collapse. But also hope and motivation. Christakis expects nothing less than a renaissance in the coming years. The mood will be exuberant, people will throw themselves into life with relish. The newfound confidence will inspire entrepreneurship and unleash creativity. Humanistic ideals would be rediscovered and appreciated, and art, which had been badly battered lately, would succeed in nothing less than a liberating blow.
On the cover of my album of the month is a dedication: "Dedicated to the dreamers, seers, griots and truth tellers who refuse to let us fully descend into madness". Wow, what a mission statement. The headline of an enthusiastic review by JazzEcho fits this: "A musical liberation blow". Jon Batiste shows that he is much more than just a jazz artist (Why 'not just'? Never mind...). Yes, there is a lot in this man. What has developed in recent years very varied and now culminates in an album that puts him in position to become a really great one in this upcoming renaissance.
The personal beginning: The task of political cabaret (yes, it is a task!) is performed in the USA by the Late Night Hosts. In a weekly or weekday rhythm, late night shows take often funny aim at socio-political life. And along the way, celebrities are interviewed and music is played, with guests or the house band. Dean Martin and Johnny Carson, David Letterman and Jay Leno made history in this respect; today's heroes are John Oliver, Jimmy Fallon, Trevor Noah and Stephen Colbert. The latter's house band is called "Jon Batiste and Stay Human." They play intros and outros to the commercial breaks and between individual show acts, sometimes the band leader also acts as the host's sidekick.
The late night shows are not distributed in Europe, but excerpts from the shows are available as YouTube clips. And my Canadian wife and I enjoy these almost every night as bedtime entertainment on the iPad. There is the introductory monologue, the one or other interview, the one or other performance and humorous program point. Only there's hardly anything from the house bands. That has changed in the case of Stephen Colbert on Pandemic. In every show he skypes with his bandleader Jon Batiste, exchanges ideas with him and asks him for a sound snippet for the following component of the show or simply according to the current mood. So we got to know - "Say hello to our friend Jon Batiste everybody" - Jon Batiste, a sympathetic and empathetic person, with common sense and interested in everything that is happening in the world and in his country. And a multi-faceted musician who shifts between styles, whatever can be intoned with a keyboard instrument.
Jon Batiste's history and career is more than interesting. He was born in 1986 in Kenner, Louisiana, into an exceedingly musical family that included the legendary saxophonist Harold Batiste in the 1950s and the versatile jazzman Lionel Batiste. HBO's music series "Treme" is loosely based on the Batistes' family history. The gifted young Jonathan attended the famed Juilliard School conservatory in NYC, earning a master's degree in both jazz and classical piano music. And took off not only as a composer and performer, but also in the music business. He has been co-artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem since 2012, music director at The Atlantic magazine since 2017, and musical director of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert since 2015.
Since Batiste has been limited in his main job as bandleader on The Late Show for a little over a year, he apparently found the time and muse to get involved with other projects. Just two examples: For his album "Meditations" with Cory Wong he was nominated for a Grammy in the category Best New Age Album - and at the same time for the classic live jazz work "Chronology of a Dream: Live at the Village Vanguard" (Yes, that's right: the jazz mecca in Greenwich Village since 1935) in the category Best Instrumental Album. Unfortunately, it came up empty. Not so at the Golden Globes a few weeks ago, where he was honored for the soundtrack to the Pixar masterpiece "Soul," for which he composed the jazz pieces. Likewise, he received the Critics' Choice Award. And was nominated for an Oscar.
A look at Batiste's work on vinyl reveals that he is a wanderer between musical worlds. Whether solo or with congenial partners, he gives classics a refreshingly new twist (Not only in the rich jazz catalog, but beyond that, for example, with U2's timeless indictment "Sunday, bloody sunday") or proves his amazing ability as a composer of multi-layered works of his own. And interprets them off the beaten path of well-known formats like the Monterey Jazz Festival. Since he likes to give unannounced concerts with his band Stay Human on the streets of New York - called "Love riots" - it seems almost logical that the album "My N.Y." was recorded entirely in subway stations of the city. Symbolic of Batiste's endeavor, music should connect people. It's no wonder that not only Spike Lee, for example, relies on Batiste's art for the soundtrack of "Red Hook Summer," but also the producers of the video game classic "Sonic the Hedgehog."
This aspiration to connect people is also reflected in the public persona of Jon Batiste. He played with Stay Human at the legendary March for Science-rally at the Washington monument and solo at the Juneteenth celebration in Brooklyn. And showed the flag at Black Lives Matter. On the role of music in society, he said last year that "...music has always been something that has had all of the different purposes of our life and our community and our healing and our unspoken pain - and the transmission of messages and the raising awareness of a condition of a people." And: "The world at large sees music as entertainment. It's never been that, at its root. It is that in one element of it, but the entire spectrum of music is far, far deeper and wide-ranging" (San Francisco Classical Voice).
So now Batiste presents his fifth studio album, "We Are," which he calls "a culmination of my life to this point" in Atwood Magazine. The liner notes say the album's purpose is "a desire to bring the essence of jazz to audiences other than its traditional audience, to draw from the rich musical heritage of New Orleans, and to address the universal needs of a healthy culture, which includes singing together, gathering across generations, and celebrating a diversity of traditions and perspectives." So presumably his outfit on the cover photo, reminiscent of a gospel preacher, is as much a coincidence as the dedication mentioned above.
Musically, the journey on "We Are" runs from gospel to jazz, rhythm'n'blues and funk to rap. The red line here is obviously black. Batiste himself comments, "As a black man and as an American, I feel like this album has to embody what I'm dreaming of and fighting for." The songs are exuberantly arranged, sweeping along and conveying a zest for life. One could even argue that Batiste is appealing to his audience to keep a positive attitude even in the darkest of times. He has soul in his voice and jazz in his fingers. And a critical spirit in his head. In the title track, for example, a quote from a sermon by Batiste's grandfather, who was a companion of Martin Luther King Junior. A family mission then? Maybe that was partly due to the studio where the album was recorded in New Orleans: the Esplanade Studios are located in a former church, a guarantee for a special sound backdrop, but maybe also a proverbial inspiring place.
Actually, this section of my blog is called "Album of the Month". So why did I write so much more about the musician than about his music this time? Quite simply: rarely are the artistic work and the personality (story) of an artist so close to each other as in the case of Jon Batiste. After all, he has already absorbed music with his mother's milk. And he is committed to music as a message in many ways, especially as a supporter of and mentor in support programs for young musicians. For example, he has led his own Social Music Residency and Mentoring Program - sponsored by Chase Bank, for which he has been a testimonial alongside H&M, Apple and Lincoln.
And Batiste's music doesn't really lend itself to clear classification, despite his "jazz" label. But what's the point? It simply appeals to anyone who likes music beyond its sound. Be it as a good-mood program on a rainy Sunday afternoon, as a source of energy before, after or during work, or simply as a caress for the soul. Because really good music appeals to all the senses.
Forbes magazine writes about the current album by Batiste, whom they had already included in the list of "30 under 30" years before: "We are" has a richness that needs to be savored when listened to. The album can be best appreciated when it's played beginning to end, listened to just like a novel is read. And, if you close your eyes while it plays, (...) you can hear that it's also made like a movie." There is nothing more to add. Enjoy!
Here is the entertaining video for one of the highlights of "We are": "I need you" shows very clearly that jazz still is very much alive: