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‘Late Show’ Bandleader Jon Batiste Stays in the Jazz Vanguard With New Album

The jazz pianist explores the road from Monk to Colbert in a Variety Q&A.

It’s fascinating to watch mainstream audiences fall in love with Jon Batiste on a nightly basis as the bandleader of “The Late Show.”

At 32, Stephen Colbert’s congenial foil — an adroit pianist equally agile and equally playful on melodica and organ — is known for his eclectic crossover compositions which juxtapose pop, gospel and the R&B of his Louisiana youth with an adventurously spritely and subtly avant-garde brand of sonorous jazz.

It is the latter, something Batiste calls “melodious atonality,” that flows through his newest album, “Anatomy of Angels: Live at the Village Vanguard.” Recorded during a six-night Vanguard residency in the fall of 2018, “Anatomy of Angels” has Batiste summoning the ghosts of heroes (Coltrane, Monk) and old friends (friend-trumpeter Roy Hargrove who passed last autumn) with no edits or retakes. “It’s a snapshot of live art,” said Batiste.

Variety caught up with Batiste on a humid July afternoon in Manhattan.

Thelonious Monk is a hero of yours. What do you recall about that first moment hearing Monk?
I felt a kindred spirit in Monk when I first heard him at 18 years old, when I first moved to New York and was at Julliard. I found myself listening to him for an entire year straight, after being at this jam session — one that still happens uptown, on the Upper West Side at 96th Street — at Cleopatra’s Needle, where someone started playing “Evidence.” I had never heard Monk before. The theme, the melody, sounded like what I had been working on in the practice room at school. I had been hearing it in my head forever, as I was trying to approach this sound and really develop it. After I got home and checked out “Evidence” on record, I realized that the song I had in my head — something I thought I had created! — was something he had already developed, a version of it, 50 years earlier.

And you had a good feeling about that, rather than a lousy one?
Yes. Along with it being cool to see that there’s nothing new under the sun, and that this was a learning instance, I had a “wow” moment: that there was a musician who had already made so much ground with this kind of rhyming phrasing and logic in terms of spacing, and that I could just take what he had and keep going from there. I could evolve his concept.

On the new album, not only do you rework Monk’s “Round Midnight” into something unusual even for that song’s askew melodic nature, there’s another song, “Creative,” that could have come fresh from “Monk’s Dream.” Why now for these Monk moments, after your last album, “Hollywood Africans,” was so soulful and so pop-timistic? 
He’s my Mount Rushmore of influences. When I first recorded the trio album that year after I listened to Monk almost exclusively, you can hear the change in my playing from my first album in New Orleans. Since that time — what, 2006? — I have evolved even more, and assimilated Monk’s whole style into mine. I learned his language, figured out where it overlaps with my language, and created something that is a synthesis of both, which is what you’re hearing now.

You composed “Creative” for your trio (with bassist Phil Kuehn and drummer Joe Saylor) based on how the three of you communicate, right? 
That record I mentioned, “Live in New York” from 2006, is where we first developed a sound and put it on wax. That was a beautiful experience. You could sense us evolving, the culmination of which you could hear on that album, and it was something that really took its time. Listen to “Creative” on the “Jazz Is Now” record from 2013, then hear “Creative” on the new “Village Vanguard” record. We love to play in a way that takes in all styles of music and considers the jazz trio format — Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett — but with our own approach. I think because of all the shows we’ve played together, we spontaneously blend all styles together into one, from free avant-garde sounds straight into something traditional like ragtime, then into a hip-hop groove.

The avant-garde is something that you just slip in without warning, something that connects to your concept of “melodious atonality.” That always reminds me of Ornette Coleman’s Harmalodics. 
That is at the root of everything that we do, our biggest innovation as a trio. Something where the avant-garde can sound and feel as if it is something that is the most hummable, singable tune. All of the players on the new album have it, have studied it, and are top-tier musicians. But the thing that we all have in common, especially the trio, is that there is accessibility to what we do. It is not presented in a way that is too heady, or overly intellectual. The person who gets it can go deep. The person who doesn’t, they can listen and get something out of it.

Is that level of intellectualization also there with your “Late Show” band? How do you interact with that ensemble of musicians, as opposed to your trio?
The trio is less about rehearsing. Not that we don’t rehearse; we do. But we don’t have to rehearse. It’s more about communicating, and putting together these structures. All of the songs on this new album, the forms got set up as different structures that we go in between. We cue each other as to when we’re going into the next section. There are structures that we play with that are malleable. With the “Late Show” band, we rehearse in a way that is more like an orchestra. I have some of the greatest orchestra players who can play any type of music, and multiple instruments. There, it is just about me developing a repertoire where I’m writing out parts or the whole arrangement. It’s a different approach, but there we do create space for spontaneous communication that’s more akin to the avant-garde stuff I do with the trio. The structure of “The Late Show” doesn’t always allow for that, but it is there — more so than on any other show.

Stephen Colbert and Jon BatisteCBS Upfront Presentation 2018, New York, USA - 16 May 2018
CREDIT: Kristina Bumphrey/Starpix/Shutterstock

Questlove and Black Thought from the Roots and the bandleaders of “The Tonight Show” have told me that their experience on that show has broadened their scope, as they might be including country motifs, classical themes, Broadway elements. Is that true for you as well?
There’s a blend and a feel to that show’s band. It was not always in the shape it is now. Yet, after 800 shows and nearly five years of doing the show, that consistency — you can’t replace it.

Let’s go back to “Anatomy of Angels: Live at the Village Vanguard,” and the Vanguard itself. That room has its own brand of ghosts. What is the first show that you saw there? 
The first show I saw there was either Wynton Marsalis’ Quartet or the Brad Mehldau Trio. Probably Brad’s show, because I can remember sitting behind his piano. I even have a bootleg of it somewhere. I can remember thinking how I couldn’t wait to hear him play because, in high school, I remember a recording of him playing “Countdown” that was amazing. My greatest experience at the Vanguard, however, was when I played there with Roy Hargrove 10 years ago. My first time there.

What were you thinking going into that night?
Oh man, I just wanted to play at my very best, because, before he became a mentor of mine, he was a person I looked up to, because of his ability to play different styles and contexts of music, be it jazz,  neo-soul or hip hop. He was on records by D’Angelo, Common and Erykah Badu. He was doing different things. So I wanted to show that I could hang, and really be on the same level as him, and push myself to show all that I had been studying before I got to New York.  He called me to play that gig, and I thought that the city was everything I thought it could be. It just felt like a mini-festival because everybody congregated around Roy. There was a lot of love for him from several different corners of the recording industry. That energy was very present during that run of shows, coupled with the energy of the Vanguard and what you said were the ghosts there.

Did you feel Roy’s presence when you made this new record at the Vanguard?
We did, as we found out that Roy had passed the week we were playing. It brought back memories. He was fresh on my mind, no doubt.

Did you have the songs that are on “Anatomy of Angels” in mind before you booked the residency?
I wanted to record these songs, but it was a matter of how they would turn out. The list was on my mind before we got there. Really just wanted to capture the concept I was talking about — that avant-garde concept — not the A, B, A, B, verse, chorus, bridge tradition. I wanted to take themes that reoccur through sections and lengths that are different every time we play. Every song was singular, never to be played that same way again. Some of the songs I had for this, I had in my repertoire for years, even before I came to New York, so in some ways, I just wanted to document those. Every song was something I thought needed to be documented in order to capture that concept of melodious atonality. That is our contribution. Something special that has matured over time.

Being that some of these songs have been in your catalog for years, how did you know they were ripe?
I’m at a point now, this time of my life, where I’m known and have a platform to share things that I think have value. So, I’d like to bring something valuable to life. If I had done this before, not as many people would have taken notice. Plus, I wanted to document this time of multi-generational kinship between bands, and the relationships of some of the younger cats on the record. I thought back to when I first started at the Vanguard with Roy. I was the same age as some of these cats now when I played with Roy. Come to think of it, Roy was like my age now when I played with him then. It’s an amazing thing to think about, really.

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