For the LJN “10 Tracks I Can’t Do Without” series, in which jazz musicians do a deep (and entirely personal and selective) dive into the music of their idols, singer-songwriter Lara Eidi (*) picks some of her favourite Jon Batiste moments:
In the chaotic industry that is contemporary music, Jon Batiste has managed to stay true to the thing that motivates him: simply, his love for music and all that it entails. As he has said: “…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”.
This is the most prominent reason I have for thinking that Jon Batiste is our modern-day Renaissance Man, and a true healer. Any work he’s done he’s excelled at, whether it was his early formative years of teaching workshops and clinics to under-educated, inner city school children in The Netherlands, or affirming his status as an exceptional bandleader and pianist performing with his band Stay Human for the Stephen Colbert Show since 2015.
His film work, most notably his compositions for the film Soul, brought joy in one of humanity’s darkest hours, and his attention to detail to revitalise his culture and bring awareness has seen him shifting between the protest of Juneteenth, performing on the steps of the Brooklyn Public Library in the aftermath of George Floyd and revitalising the original Harlem Dance in his song ‘I Need You’. He’s quite literally unstoppable, generating one of the most profound honours of all which is the respect he has amongst musicians he’s worked with, including Stevie Wonder, Prince, Willie Nelson, Lenny Kravitz, Ed Sheeran, Roy Hargrove, and Mavis Staples. I am honestly ecstatic that as of 2021, Batiste has garnered a whopping 14 Grammy nominations.
Enigmatic but with a charisma that somehow combines swagger with modesty, it’s Jon Batiste’s time to bring music back to the people, for the people.
1) What A Wonderful World (from Hollywood Africans)
Batiste’s piano playing was the initial link that drew me to him; his feel moves within a world of harmonics that speak to the heart. The video for his take on ‘What A Wonderful World’ is sublime, featuring Batiste, with his piano, in the middle of London against a second narrative of nuns enjoying the sites and sounds. Keeping an Eb pedal drone, Batiste takes his time to paint his own depiction of the magical world he inhabits, at least, momentarily. He has that ability to make the melancholic sound like hope; isn’t that the point of the song itself?
2) We Are (from We Are)
We inhabit a world of music synonymous with activism; arguably, Batiste is at the forefront of this movement, and man is he a leader! Against a filmic docu-narrative of the Black Lives Matter movement, Batiste calls the peacemakers, game changers and voices of our generation to “tell the truth” in a rousing chorus: “We are the golden ones, we are the chosen ones”. Again, his song springs hope amidst the injustice.
3) Coltrane (from We Are) – live for NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert
You can always realise the genius of a musician from record to the stage. Batiste is a compelling example constantly reinventing his own music to live audiences; much like his jazz ancestors, always improvising to the vibe of each setting. I’ve had his entire NPR Tiny Desk concert on repeat for a whole week now. ‘Coltrane’ in particular celebrates a return to Batiste’s native Louisiana. Enthralling in his exquisite switch from rapping over a verse celebrating black culture to Coltranesque lyrical chords; because he can.
4) Let God Lead – Jon Batiste and Stay Human
“Music is your own experience, your own thoughts, your wisdom” – Charlie Parker. Yes indeed. Batiste is a classically trained musician with jazz-blues roots. He lives and breathes the here and now in quite literally every piece he composes. ‘Lead the Way’, performed with his stellar band that catapulted him into fame, Stay Human, is about celebrating his own belief; it’s nothing to do with religion, it’s about faith and letting the power of music be your guide.
5) Nocturne No. 1 in D Minor
Duke Ellington was the first pianist for me to set the record straight when it came to uniting the virtuosity of classical and its long-lost cousin, jazz. Jon Batiste is another. Backed by a smooth-talking rhythm section, you can almost hear Batiste toying with Chopin, coyly asking him to explain what happens during the ‘nocturnal’ hours. It’s an extension of what Chopin intended, in my humble opinion, and what blows me even more away is how adamantly Batiste insists on pushing the boundaries. That’s jazz, baby.
6 ) St. James Infirmary (from Hollywood Africans) – live on the Stephen Colbert Show
‘St. James Infirmary’ is not just a blues song: it’s a tale of injustice, racial and social, a woeful tale of trying to make amends with grief and wallowing in a path that leads to a state of chaos so great it’s almost unbearable. When Batiste sings the final verse – “Folks, this is the end of my story” – that did it for me. His voice, like his piano playing, shapeshifts into something altogether timeless.
7 ) Language – from Tori Kelly with Jon Batiste (live, unrehearsed)
To quote Batiste himself: “Let’s create something we haven’t rehearsed; it’s music after all.” Having collaborated several times with soul-pop songstress Tori Kelly, Batiste once again demonstrates one of his many talents: improviser, bandleader and one-man band whilst staying respectful to a vocalist as an instrumentalist. Instrumentalists take note: converse with a singer and you’ve got yourself a music relationship made in heaven.
8) It’s Alright (from Pixar Motion Picture Soul, featuring Celeste)
Let’s add film composing credits to Batiste’s infinite accomplishments. Batiste earned the Oscar for Best Original Score with Soul. Context is imperative to appreciating the greatness of this track: the plot centres around a talented music teacher who inspires his students. I often find we tend to forget the story behind the music, especially with jazz. I chose this track because now, more than ever, we are part of an era still refusing to acknowledge the pursuit of arts, and the truly healing qualities it has to offer. That’s what Soul is about; it’s not about momentary escape through music, it’s about using music to better us as human beings. Such is the message of Batiste’s music in general.
9) I Need You (from We Are)
Another track from Batiste’s Grammy-nominated album We Are, ‘ I Need You’ should be playing on repeat until this pandemic is over. As Batiste himself said, we don’t need a whole lotta things in this world; what we need is each other. The video speaks volumes, once again certifying Batiste as a visionary when it comes to bringing out the art of his music. It depicts modern day Batiste at a museum, inviting a woman to dance whilst bringing a painting depicting dancers to life. Of course, it isn’t just any painting: there’s a powerful nod to the 1941 film Hellzapoppin’. Based on a hit Broadway play, the dance sequence showcases Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers dancing the most famous and most spectacular Lindy Hop scene ever preserved on film. Batiste’s video takes us on a whirlwind frenzy of celebration. Also, appreciate Batiste’s stellar vocal range, moving effortlessly from baritone to high tenor and a piercing falsetto.
10) My Oh My – Chris Thile feat. Jon Batiste (Live From Here)
Earlier I mentioned jazz and folk go hand in hand for one main reason: they re-interpret stories which we universally share. One of the greatest concerts I’ve ever attended was the Punch Brothers at the Barbican Centre in 2019. Chris Thile is as versatile on his tiny mandolin as Batiste is at the piano. Improvising the intro into show stopping trades, then cascading into vocal harmonies almost ethereal, then finally jamming it out on stage, on purpose. That’s music, and that’s perfect.
(*) Athens-born to Lebanese-Canadian parents, Lara Eidi is an accomplished singer-songwriter, recording artist and jazz vocalist based in London and Athens. Her music has gained her critical acclaim as a genre defying artist (BBC Artist, 2020), described as “a singer with true gift of a voice, a kind soul, and a captivating presence.” (Sandy Brown Jazz). As well as being a multi-disciplinary artist, she is sought after as a composer for vocal film scores, writes as a freelance music journalist, and is in demand as a creative workshop leader. She’ll be back in London for a show at the 606 Club on 31 March 2022: www.laraeidimusic.com
Categories: 10 Tracks I Can't Do Without