Jay Meehan: Jon Batiste & Stay Human
February 4, 2014
When looking back on the 2013 Sundance Film Festival, not the recently passed 2014 edition but the one before that, live music sticks out in memory as much as film. Of course, my favorite films that year were "Muscle Shoals" and "Sound City," both classically-rockin’ musical documentaries with deep back-stories.
But on this one particular day that I found myself once again late getting in line for the Music Café, there was an upside to the situation. The "press door," directly adjacent to my random spot in line, had, for whatever reason, been blocked open. Conditions weren’t all that balmy for January as I recall, but perhaps the gatekeepers felt a need to infuse more air into the club.
What transpired audio-wise, however, brought nothing short of ecstatic bliss to the collective inner ear of both those already inside and, most importantly, those of us in line just outside that open door.
Someone began clapping in rhythm to the music of the ensemble then expounding its shtick onstage, and, as hoots and hollers of a syncopated nature began filling in the spaces between the beats, the outside line, and seemingly, the sidewalk and the whole of lower Main Street, began to sway.
Transformation was afoot and, as we were soon to discover, a Louisiana cat and his Julliard School cohorts, a group called Jon Batiste & Stay Human, were at the root of the rapture. To refer to the sounds emanating from the small art gallery turned intimate concert venue as "genre-bending" would have been to understate the obvious.
Their rendition of "St. James Infirmary," with its virtuoso tuba bass line, came straight out of the Vieux Carré, the French Quarter of New Orleans, with just a bit more "sass" than what probably first emerged from the "Storyville" neighborhood next door, the birthplace of Jazz.
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As the Village Voice newspaper’s Larry Blumenfeld recently quoted Batiste at a gig on New York City’s lower east side, "We play all kinds of music! We’re gonna play jazz tunes in the jazz style. We’re gonna play tunes that aren’t jazz and jazz ’em up. We’re gonna play tunes that are kind of jazz and make ’em even more jazzy." We got that and much more last year down at the Sundance Music Café.
They even found time for some Cab Calloway "Minnie the Moocher" call-and-response back and forth with the audience as the ever-so-familiar "Hi-de-hi-de-hi-de-ho" refrain got taken for yet one more spin.
Before their set ended, the faithful had been served a multi-course musical feast that included far-ranging eclectic fare from Thelonious Monk’s "Round Midnight" to a wonderfully-funky rendition of what someone told me was a Lady Gaga tune to the New Orleans sing-a-long anthem "You Are My Sunshine."
On the latter, Batiste had got up from his piano to play his "melodica," while the rest of the band grabbed their "marching" instruments: classically trained Ibanda Ruhumbika, who had been playing trombone for a few tunes, his tuba; percussionist Joe Saylor, his tambourine; with alto-saxophonist Eddie Barbash sticking with his "axe" but maybe adding just a bit more jauntiness to his swagger.
A few days later, when the Louisiana Film Festival staged a traditional bead and umbrella, white hanky-waving "Second Line" sashay up Main Street, Jonathan Batiste led the way. Utilizing extremely poor judgment, I found something else to do and missed the entirety of the affair. I should be banned for life from dunking beignet chunks into my chicory at the "Café du Monde!"
What this is all about, if you haven’t guessed already, is that, under the auspices of the Park City Institute, Jon Batiste & Stay Human will be doing-that-thing-they-do this Saturday night, Feb. 8, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts. The cool thing about this gig is that it is a full-on concert, not just a short set like their brilliant-but-abbreviated show last year at the Music Café.
Their normal menu of top-shelf-only blues, straight-ahead jazz, funk, trad, gospel, swing, bebop, avant garde, pop, rock, and who knows what else, will just be fleshed-out, augmented, served as not only gumbo but also soufflé and flambé. This is savory fare. You might even need a bib!
I’ve been listening to their music a lot lately, ever since the Institute first announced their Eccles schedule, and the subtlety and nuance of everything they do is amazing. A hushed, gorgeous, Ahmad Jamal quote by Batiste on acoustic piano has been floating about my head for weeks. Suffice to say, Jon Batiste & Stay Human got all the chops and elegance you’ll ever need.
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.