'In The Moment, You Just Fly': Jon Batiste Lets Loose At The Piano
TERRY GROSS (HOST):
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. We're ending the year by featuring some of our favorite interviews of the past year - our producers' favorites, listeners' favorites. This is one of my favorites. It's with Jon Batiste, the music director of "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," where he leads his band Stay Human. Batiste also wrote the show's theme, which he plays each night. When we spoke in September, I was in our Philadelphia studio. He was in the studio of public radio station WNYC, seated at their piano.
Batiste grew up in Kenner, La., just outside of New Orleans, and is part of one of the foremost music families in that region. He started playing with the family band when he was 8. He played drums back then. When he was 17, he moved to New York to attend Juilliard. His recent album, "Hollywood Africans," is a mix of boogie-woogie, blues, standards and originals, including compositions inspired by classical music.
We're going to hear music from the album, and he's going to sing and play music he's written and show us how he's absorbed the influence of musicians and composers he most admires. As you'll hear, he loves a broad range of music and is a virtuoso player. Let's start with part of the opening track of "Hollywood Africans." This is an original called "Kenner Boogie."
(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE'S "KENNER BOOGIE")
GROSS: Jon Batiste, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really love your playing, and I'm so grateful to you for being at the piano. So I - this is a really corny, dumb question to ask a pianist, I know. But how do you do it? How do - like on "Kenner Boogie" that we just heard, how do you coordinate the left and right hands? They're doing such different things, and what they're doing is so complex.
(LAUGHTER) GROSS: Can you break down what each hand is doing?
JON BATISTE (MUSICAL ARTIST): Absolutely.
GROSS: And can you include some of those really, like, rumbly left-hand chords you've got going on there?
BATISTE: You got to.
(LAUGHTER) GROSS: Thank you.
BATISTE: I think the great thing about piano is that you can create this rhythmic momentum, and it propels you. It's like a drum. But you also have tones. So what I'm doing in my left hand is really creating the rhythm section effect of having a bass and a drum and maybe even a bari sax down there tooting and rooting.
And so I was getting this going.
Or I'm doing something like...
...You know, like, something you might hear Fats Domino or Little Richard doing - and then just really keeping that going down there. So while I got that happening, in my right hand, I'm screaming; I'm wailing. I'm trying to figure out a way to make you feel what it is that I feel. And I can do that in many different ways. I can slide.
I can cry.
And I can even do a little bit of dancing.
Let me do the dance one more time.
GROSS: And some of the left-hand playing that you have going on in that track is really kind of rumbly. Can you do some of the chords that you've included in that composition?
BATISTE: Well, sometimes the emotion overwhelms you, and you have to growl. And this is something that I've kind of developed with my left hand that I really love. When I get that feeling, it's like a growl of a lion, this...
So I'll be playing, you know?
GROSS: That's what I was talking about (laughter).
BATISTE: So you know, you put them all together, and you know, it's like a gumbo. You put everything in the pot. And in the moment, you just fly. You know, after you make your 100th vat of gumbo, you get a feel for where to place these things. And it's not really contrived. It just is a spirit in a moment that you follow.
GROSS: Were you always singing? Or did that come later?
BATISTE: I sung before I played. But then I stopped for a long time. It's a very, very interesting story because I was terrified. I was about 8 or 9 years old the first time I sang, and it was for a television commercial. And (laughter) my family is - you know, it's a large musical family and extended family - over 30 cousins that play. I have seven uncles and several extended relatives that are musicians. And it was a real celebration of our family.
And at the time, me being the youngest, similar to The Jackson 5 scenario, they put me in front. And I'm the frontman. And my personality, especially at this time, is very introverted and observant, and my first experience really singing was this commercial. And I was singing and fronting my family's band. And we did that for about a year until I just decided, you know, I cannot (laughter) - cannot do this, and I told my dad. And that's when I really started to get into instruments, starting with the drums and percussion and eventually the piano when I was 11. And that phase began my real musical exploration minus the voice, which came back when I moved to New York and kind of, in a lot of ways, redefined myself and my band and just my vision for what I wanted to give to the world.
GROSS: So you grew up in Louisiana near New Orleans in Kenner. What were some of the most common rhythms? And you started as a drummer in your family's band. So what were some of the rhythms that you were taught to play as a drummer that helped guide you in your formative years as a pianist, things that you transferred to piano?
BATISTE: Well, there's an African rhythm that is at the base of much of New Orleans music, and that's the bamboula rhythm. And before I even understood that I was being taught this rhythm - or that I was internalizing this rhythm, rather - I was. And it goes like this. It's (clapping bamboula rhythm).
(Singing) oh, little Liza, little Liza Jane. Oh, little Liza, little Liza Jane (clapping bamboula rhythm).
(Singing) Oh, when the saints go marching in, oh, when the saints go marching in (clapping bamboula rhythm).
It's in so much of our repertoire. And me being the youngest drummer in my family at the time - there were four other drummers (laughter), my cousins - and not only was I learning the bamboula but I was learning it from them. So I had four variations of it. So by the time I started really playing and getting to the piano, I had such a rhythmic approach to it that it's still with me today.
GROSS: So do you want to translate that rhythm to something that you do with the piano?
BATISTE: Well, there's a piece on the album, "Nocturne No. 1," that has that rhythm.
GROSS: Yeah, I love that piece.
BATISTE: Yes. It's really something that kind of takes that rhythm but also my classical music training and love for the form and development of those sort of theme and variation and kind of matches them up and creates what I like to call a gold mine.
So that's the rhythm of this.
GROSS: I really love that. And on the album, there's, like, castanets (laughter) in the background. Is there a little Jelly Roll Morton in that, too?
BATISTE: He was the father of it in many ways. If you listen to his Library of Congress recordings and you hear him talk about his approach, there's a lot of similarities into - even the way that he touches the piano that I've adapted. And again, I didn't know as I was growing as a musician that this was the case. It's just something that being in that world, the world of New Orleans and the world of my family and just the lineage of everything that had been passed down for generations, I picked up on all of these things that are integral to who I am as a musician without necessarily studying them. And I'm grateful for that.
There was even a time when I was - you know, I would run from it. When I was younger, I would hear other musicians, or I would start to expand my horizons on what I'd listen to and find things that - you know, I want to be like that. But you can only be what you are. And that was a lesson that I had learned just by really focusing on the things that I loved.
GROSS: But you say you ran from it. What did you run from?
BATISTE: Well, I ran from the idea of being a part of a lineage. I wanted to be something completely separate.
GROSS: Is that part of the reason why you wanted to go to Juilliard, to kind of remove yourself from all of the New Orleans influences and styles and the family even and just be on yourself and develop individually?
BATISTE: I wanted to find something that I hadn't quite identified yet. And I was listening to a lot of albums that were made in New York - and this is back when we had liner notes.
GROSS: Yes, legible ones (laughter).
BATISTE: Legible liner notes (laughter). And we didn't have too many big record stores. Eventually, Tower Records, I'd go to and pick up just bags and bags of CDs. And I would listen to those and nerd out on who was playing on what and started to make connections. And that led me to really want to go to New York to meet and collaborate with a lot of people that I'd seen in the liner notes of records that I liked. And that coupled with the idea of starting my own band and really being a band leader on my own terms and defining what I wanted to say - fearlessly going out and risking failure apart from the community where everyone knew me was what I felt I needed to do.
GROSS: So you know, you mentioned that with Jelly Roll Morton, one of the things you really liked about his playing was his touch. One of the things I really like about your playing is your touch. I feel like your notes are so clearly articulated, and they ring out so clearly. And so is that something that you've studied, that you consciously tried to perfect, that clearness of articulation?
BATISTE: Clearness of articulation - in fact, I would say that's one of the things that I ran from early on.
GROSS: Why - like, too classical or something, too European?
BATISTE: Well, funny - I thought it was too black.
GROSS: No, really?
BATISTE: Well, in a way, my understanding of music at the time was that if you have a smoother articulation, it fit more with the trend of what was going on at the time. And my touch and my tone, it didn't fit with what I was hearing in that trend. In fact, it stuck out like a sore thumb (laughter). And it was something that I was just very, very self-conscious about for a while, thinking - well, man, this is just like - I sound like a blues pianist, or I sound like an older, more antiquated sort of piano player. I'm not modern enough.
GROSS: Is there anything that you can demonstrate for us about what you were hearing compared to what you were doing, that kind of comparison that made you feel like you were antiquated?
BATISTE: Yeah, let's see. So if I was to play just even the sound of a scale...
Now, that's a sound that...
But if I was to play it and try to make it smoother or something that is more - not as punctuated, I'll say, it goes... (Playing piano).
Now, you hear the difference in that. Now, if you apply that to playing a jazz standard, you can say...
And what I would sound like at the time - before even developing different tones and colors on the piano, everything sounded more or less like...
(Laughter) So that's an exaggeration. But the difference really was something that was unwieldy to me. I didn't know how to harness that sound. And one of the real champions of this kind of tonal piano - we talked about Jelly Roll Morton, but...
BATISTE: ...Thelonious Monk.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah.
BATISTE: He - hearing his music, it vindicated me in a lot of ways.
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is pianist and composer Jon Batiste, who is actually seated at a piano and playing for us. He's the music...
BATISTE: (Playing piano).
GROSS: (Laughter) Yes, thank you.
GROSS: He's the music director of "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," where he leads his band Stay Human. He has a new album called "Hollywood Africans," on which he plays boogie, a composition inspired by Chopin, a couple of standards, a few originals. It's a terrific album.
I hear so much Monk in your playing - again, not imitating him but having kind of absorbed him and made it your own. What did you hear in Monk that made you feel like what you were doing was OK and that took you even further into it? 'Cause I could tell you what I hear but tell me what - you tell me (laughter).
BATISTE: So talking about moving to New York and hustling and starting a band - and I was really trying to find my sound. I had this idea of making phrases on the piano balance themself with a certain logic or rhythmic logic. So if I ask a question...
And then I'll answer...
But it's not resolved...
You know, it's a dance. And this is something - I was 18 or 19 at the time. And I was really, really, every day, just trying to find this sound and going to the jam sessions. And this sound I had never really explored before but was very excited about, one day at a jam session, I hear the band playing the sound (laughter) - a fully realized version of the sound. I'm like, oh, that's what I'm trying to get to. That's it right there. What song is this? And I go up to the piano player. And I ask him, what song are you playing? He's like, yeah, this is "Evidence" by the Thelonious Monk.
And I'm like, oh, wow, who wrote that? He's like, Thelonious Monk. I hadn't heard it before at the time. So I then go and get the record. You know, it's amazing. I start listening to it. And I had heard about Monk. They had been telling me about Monk. In fact, one of the first songs that I'd ever learned was "Straight, No Chaser," so I had known of his music. But I had never checked his playing out. And wow - it was like - and this is the power of music and why I think, you know, everything is everything; we're all connected. This artist had cultivated a sound that I intuitively was reaching for 50 years before I existed.
And I didn't even know that what I was reaching for had already been developed. So at that point, as you say, absorb - I kid you not - it must have been at least for nine months to a year exclusively listening to Thelonious Monk. And you can hear it in the live at the Rubin Museum album that - my trio, we recorded an album that year. And the difference in my playing from my first album, when I was in New Orleans, to that album, which was my second, is such an artistic evolution. And Thelonious Monk is at the center of that evolution.
GROSS: Things I hear you doing that remind me of Monk is your use of dissonance, your use of kind of punctuation, your use of space - of letting things ring out and not filling it - and the kind of angularity of Monk. So can you play something of your own that incorporates the kinds of things we've been talking about?
BATISTE: Oh, absolutely. There's a piece that I recorded twice titled "Red Beans," and it's a blues. And when you hear the melody, it has that rhyme and also that space and dissonance that's characteristic of Monk. But I never copy. I try to absorb, which is what I hope I've done with this piece.
GROSS: Oh, that's great (laughter).
BATISTE: I'm glad you like it.
GROSS: I do. Do you still listen to a lot of Monk?
BATISTE: I don't listen to Monk regularly, but I always come back to his music. Bach is another one - James Brown, Nina Simone.
GROSS: OK. Let's do a little contrast here - some Bach and how that's influenced you.
BATISTE: Oh, my goodness. Well (laughter), there's so much there. I think that Bach is a - the mysticism of music, spirituality of music, the depth of how he's able to be so systematic and logical, symmetrical at times - super symmetrical to the point of it almost being a musical game of sorts - yet it harboring such a depth of human feeling, the range of human emotions and asking questions about the afterlife. I mean, "The St. Matthew Passion," I was listening to that a couple days ago. It's about three hours long. And just listening to that makes you realize what's possible. He's arguably the best at a thing that anyone's ever been in the history of doing a thing.
GROSS: Can you play an example of Bach that you think exemplifies both, like, the spiritual but also the kind of game-like aspect of it in its structure?
BATISTE: Oh, my - you know, there's something in the inventions, which - I mean, he's just chilling at home. And he's like, it's tough out there in the streets, y'all. So kids, I'm going to write you these inventions. And he writes these pieces that are among the most standard of the repertoire. If you are a classical pianist, you have to know these inventions. It was some of the first things I learned. And you research and find out he wrote these for his kids. So (laughter)....
But there are two voices, which I really enjoy. You know, there's...
That's the left hand. And the right hand's...
And it's moving all of a sudden. But it's just two voices. And (laughter) the simplicity of how he makes something that is just two melodies playing in conversation - asking questions, responding. Sometimes they're talking at the same time; other times, it's call and response. Sometimes it's in harmony; sometimes there's dissonance. That's life. That's our journey exemplified in a simple piece that he wrote for his kids. That's amazing.
GROSS: I want to play something from your new record, "Hollywood Africans," that's kind of the opposite of the joyful boogie. And this is "St. James Infirmary." And I've heard many versions of this over the years. This is, I think, my favorite because you bring out the death in it. It's so dirge-like. It feels very deeply felt. So let's hear the recording, and then we'll talk about your interpretation.
(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE'S "ST. JAMES INFIRMARY")
GROSS: So that's Jon Batiste from his new album "Hollywood Africans." And Jon is at the piano.
So it's a really terrific version of that song. I think it's such an interesting contrast to the boogie that we opened with 'cause this is so intentionally spare. So talk about your interpretation of the song and what's going on with that really dirge-like, march-like set of chords you're using.
BATISTE: Well, you got to think of a place. And you have to really put yourself in the story. My goal is to really be authentic in conveying an emotion. And for me, I have to be in a place. So I'm thinking of the Harvest Moon. I'm thinking of a scene that is set in New Orleans. Maybe it's 1700s or something like that. And you really feel the urgency of what's going on when you apply that space because you're just waiting and waiting. And it's kind of...
You know, I'm setting the scene right now.
And you're waiting to see what's going to happen. And then of course, it's tragedy.
And so on. You know, it's really about the scene and then figuring out how to infuse it with the blues because the blues feeling is such an important part of telling this story.
GROSS: So I want to move on to your work on "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," where you're the bandleader and music director. You lead your band, Stay Human, on the show. And you had to write the theme for the show. So what were some of the challenges of writing a theme that were different from anything else you'd written before?
BATISTE: I wanted to write something that captured a theme-like quality, which means you want to hum it (humming) - something that captured that hummable, singable quality but also that had - it represented all of my - not all of but just some of the things that I love about TV music or TV themes. Like, the sound of chords on TV - like minor seventh and major seventh chords on television is amazing. I would give that...
GROSS: What do you mean? Play us what you're talking about.
BATISTE: When you hear those...
...Those kind of chords on TV.
Welcome back. You know?
BATISTE: It's just like a - just, you know - it's just something about that kind of - if you have, like, a deceptive cadence going to a major chord, it fits on TV. Like, you've got some...
All right. We're back, y'all. And how y'all doing?
BATISTE: You know, so I wanted - I, being an avid sitcom watcher in the '90s, I wanted to capture those feelings of nostalgia in the theme somehow with the harmonic progression. So you hear the progression...
(Playing piano, vocalizing).
A lot of people get that chord wrong. So it's...
(Playing piano, vocalizing)
BATISTE: (Playing piano).
You know? (Playing piano, vocalizing). You know, just like all these kinds of sounds - you know, those chords are coming together in a way that just makes me feel nostalgic for when I used to watch television.
GROSS: That also has a quality of conversation that you were talking about. What's the question? What's the answer? What's the response?
BATISTE: Oh, I mean, I'm a firm believer in call and response. I think it's the oldest musical form because we always had a sense of how to communicate with each other even before there was language.
GROSS: Was this your first version of the theme? And did Stephen Colbert reject any of the themes?
BATISTE: So he called me one day, and he asked me to write the theme and give him a few different options. And he had a few songs that he referenced in terms of what not to do.
GROSS: (Laughter) Yes.
BATISTE: I won't say those songs - references. But he just told me what he didn't want. And so I was like, OK. I'll try to figure out - in fact, he did like one of the songs from one of my albums, "Social Music." The song is - it had this piano thing. It's "Why You Gotta Be Like That."
He liked that. He told me he liked that. So one of the versions I gave him was with that kind of riff in it. I gave him three different versions. The other version I gave him was something that was very up-tempo. And this version was something - you know, the one that we actually ended up going with was something that I thought had that kind of feeling, that nostalgia. But it was more - it was less in your face. It was more subtle, more of something that gives you an excitement. But it's not hysterical type of excitement. It's, like, intelligent excitement.
And I figured that he would pick the one that was like the song of mine that he said he liked the riff from or he would pick the one that was super in your face because it's prime-time late-night television. And he shot down both of those and said, I like the - in fact it was Tom Purcell, one of the executive producers on the show, who said it's definitely "Humanism." And...
GROSS: That's the name of the actual theme.
BATISTE: That's the name of the theme. And I remember writing it. I was just sitting on my bed, and it just came to me. (Laughter) I was just sitting there. I was like - I always love it when that happens, just, like, sitting down and, knock-knock - hey, special delivery.
GROSS: (Laughter) What's the more in-your-face theme that you didn't use as the main theme?
BATISTE: It goes...
That's the groove, right (laughter)?
GROSS: I like it. Yeah.
BATISTE: Yeah. It's got the thing to it. And the horns, you know...
...That kind of thing. I think that's it. I kind of messed it up a little bit, but that's kind of the vibe of it.
GROSS: One of the things that you have to do as the bandleader - and during Stephen Colbert's opening monologue, you often do the piano equivalent of a rimshot to say, like, that was funny, and punctuate the joke. But you'll play, like, a fragment of a tune that comments or that aligns with the joke. So for example, (laughter), when Colbert is doing a golden showers joke related to the Trump dossier, you often play the Monk piece...
(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "TRINKLE, TINKLE")
ROSS: ..."Trinkle, Tinkle" (laughter).
(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "TRINKLE, TINKLE")
GROSS: (Laughter) So when did you start thinking, like, "Trinkle, Tinkle" would work great for golden showers?
BATISTE: It's all in the moment. It's the improvisation, and then things become routine. You want to have some stuff in your trunk. And I really, really have improvised to find a lot of that stuff. I wanted to figure out my own way of doing that, so that's what happened. I started quoting things as they came to me.
GROSS: Something we haven't talked about is church. I don't know how much time you spent in church as a child and what the music was like there.
BATISTE: I had a lot of great experiences. You know, I grew up in Catholic church, Baptist church. My grandfather and my grandmother went to different churches. And the experience was very varied, but it was good to see the way that people worship in different ways. I mostly was in the Catholic church, but I loved the music there, too. It's a big part of my sound. It's something that is ethereal, celestial-sounding and made for cathedrals.
GROSS: And what about in the other church?
BATISTE: Oh, my goodness. That was a different thing (laughter). That was more about the excitement of letting your spirit shine.
GROSS: I want to play another song from your new album "Hollywood Africans." This is an original song called "Is It Over." And we're going to hear you singing and playing piano. And are you on organ also? Did you overdub organ?
BATISTE: Yes. There's organ. There's the choir, an amazing choir. Yeah, this one is coming from very deep within.
GROSS: OK. So this is a Jon Batiste original called "Is It Over" from his new album "Hollywood Africans."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IS IT OVER") BATISTE: (Singing) You love, and you can't deny. And you try so hard. You try. But it's me and you, not I. Please me. Please me. (Singing) Please me, and just tell me what I want to hear. And she said, yeah. She said, yeah. She said, yeah...
GROSS: That's Jon Batiste from his new album "Hollywood Africans." He's the music director of "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," where he leads his band Stay Human.
Let's get back to our interview with Jon Batiste, the music director of "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," where he leads his band, Stay Human. He's at the piano for our interview.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
GROSS: So what I sometimes do on the show when I'm talking to a musician who's doing a kind of musical autobiography is to ask them to redeem a song, to take a song that we wouldn't expect them to like that they do or a song that we think of as square, too corny, too sentimental, a song beyond redemption but that you love. So is there a song like that that comes to mind that you would like to redeem for us?
BATISTE: Well, I love "Happy And You Know It." I really like that song.
GROSS: Just the children's song...
BATISTE: I like what it represents.
GROSS: ...That you're talking about...
GROSS: ...If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands?
BATISTE: If you're happy and know it, clap those hands (laughter).
GROSS: (Laughter) And why do you love this?
BATISTE: Yes. It's something that I like about these kind of melodies, these kind of nursery rhymes, these children's melodies that are just so coherent. And they have a - almost like the...
It's that question-and-answer thing that I just love in music that we were talking about earlier with Thelonious Monk. Of course, Monk is much more complex. But (laughter) at the root of it, it's the same thing, which is why I think children can respond to it in such an intuitive way. This - it's kind of...
And that's it. Oh, I get it. Now, if you put a bass line on it and some different harmonies on it, you can get a vibe like...
Get some church on it.
BATISTE: Just bring out some of the emotions of it. And then when you play a...
BATISTE: ...You know, it's just a - I don't know. I like it. It's cool.
GROSS: Oh, I like it now. (Laughter) I like what you did with it (laughter).
BATISTE: (Laughter) It's like...
(Singing, playing piano) If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands. If you're happy and you know it, clap your hand, Lord. If you're happy and you know it and you really want to show it - go on on and show it - if you're happy and you know it, clap your hands, yes.
GROSS: Jon Batiste, you have been so wonderful. I am so grateful to you. Thank you so much. You've been so generous with your music, with us and (laughter) in general. Thank you.
BATISTE: Thank you so much. It's a pleasure to be here. And till next time.
GROSS: Jon Batiste's recent album is called "Hollywood Africans." The title is a reference to the 1983 painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat. Batiste is working on a musical based on Basquiat's life. Our interview was recorded last September. Batiste joined us from the studio of WNYC. Our thanks to WNYC engineer George Wellington.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we conclude our holiday series featuring favorite interviews from 2018 with actor Rami Malek. He plays Freddie Mercury, lead singer of Queen, in the new film "Bohemian Rhapsody." Malek also stars in the TV series "Mr. Robot" as a troubled hacker. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AULD LANG SYNE (LIVE)") JON BATISTE AND STAY HUMAN (MUSICAL ARTIST): (Singing) Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind? May auld acquaintance be forgot and auld lang syne. For auld lang syne, my dear - for auld, for auld lang syne. We'll take a cup - a cup of kindness yet for auld - for auld lang syne.
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. Audrey Bentham is our technical director. Our other engineers are Adam Staniszewski and Charlie Kaier. I'm Terry Gross. All of us wish you a healthy and fulfilling 2019.
(SOUNDBITE OF JON BATISTE AND STAY HUMAN SONG, "AULD LANG SYNE (LIVE)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.