By Jim Harper
Jon Batiste, part of a large and prominent New Orleans musical family, had no idea there was anything unusual about his hometown, with its mix of many cultures, in which music is the soul of so many lives.
Batiste started playing in the family band when he was 8, switching to piano at 11. "I didn't realize it was any different in other cultures in the United States until I was about 15 or 16 and started to tour for the first time,'' he said by phone last week. "I saw that the music scene in a lot of other places didn't really compare."
Now 27 and living in New York, Batiste brings New Orleans' eclectic spirit to his current venture, Jon Batiste and Stay Human, a keyboard-percussion-saxophone-tuba quartet that will play Tuesday in Ferguson Hall at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts.
It's not just hometown jazz and rhythm and blues, though. Batiste wanted to reflect all the other things that people his age have listened to — pop, hip-hop, soul — along with his experience of living the past decade in New York.
Batiste and his bandmates went to Juilliard together. "And we have a shared experience, so we're taking our chemistry and creating a sound that really resonates with what's going on right now in our generation." The Internet, he said, has given people access to types of music they might not have been exposed to before. "So everything is becoming not a specific genre but a mix of things."
Listening to the band's most recent album, Social Music, one hears echoes of Branford Marsalis, John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder, the Neville Brothers, even the Rolling Stones.
"Oh yeah, all that's in there," Batiste laughed. "I think the echoes that you hear … are like when you have a friend and you share some similar interests. You both know something about that specific thing that excites you. You hear (something) in my music because that excites me. You wouldn't recognize it if you weren't a fan of it also."
In addition to a conventional piano, Batiste likes to perform with a light and portable keyboard blown by the mouth. It's like a melodica, which sounds like a reed instrument. But it's a hybrid of Batiste's own invention — "more of a brass instrument, kind of like a horn, a harmonica and a keyboard put together."
"I love the idea of standing up and being mobile — taking music to people where they are. If you don't have the constraint of being at the piano the entire night, there's a lot more you can do as a performer."
The instrument also allows the entire band to play wherever it wants to, whether it's the subway or Carnegie Hall. (There's that legacy of New Orleans again. Think of those brass bands, which put music on the street, at the center of people's lives.)
Said Batiste of the band's current album title, as well as its philosophy: "Social music is really about bringing people together."