If you look up the word human in the dictionary, you’ll get a fairly nonspecific definition: of, belonging to, or typical of mankind [the human race]. My Webster’s New World Dictionary, in an attempt to further clarify the meaning of the word human, adds the following two entries: 1. consisting of or produced by men [human society] 2. having or showing qualities characteristic of people [human values]. These definitions leave much to be desired in the way of understanding what it means to be human. Perhaps, the best way to understand what it means to be human, is to experience it. So, in the interest of humanity, last night I went to see Jon Batiste and Stay Human perform in concert at the Rinker Playhouse in West Palm Beach, FL.
I first heard about Jon Batiste and Stay Human at Barnes & Noble’s music department, where I work part time. A couple of months ago, we received their new album titled Social Music for our in-store play. After weeks of listening to Social Music, I realized that Jon Batiste and Stay Human had achieved what all recording artists hope to do, when in my apartment, I began to hum some of the melodies I had been hearing on the CD. This new jazz band’s music, which Anthony DeCurtis quoted Jon Batiste describing as “…a montage of many different music traditions,” and reflecting “that spirit of advancement, collaboration and connectivity while still remaining human” in an age of technology, had slowly infiltrated my subconscious.
Some time after that, I checked out a film titled Red Hook Summer directed by Spike Lee. It’s a film about a young boy from Atlanta who spends a summer in New York with his preacher grandfather. To my surprise, Jon Batiste was cast as the organist for the preacher’s church. I then found out that Jon Batiste and Stay Human would be in concert at the Rinker. I thought this might be an opportunity to catch a glimpse at what could become one of the legendary jazz movements, and jazz artists of the 21st century.
Imagine being able to go back in time and see Louis Armstrong and his Hot Five play Heebie Jeebies in front of a live audience for the first time. What if you could clumsily trip into a time warp, and come out on the other side in time, to catch Thelonious Monk, debuting his trademark, trans-like dance along side his piano. Or catch John Coltrane at the start of Avant-garde jazz, and hear him play standards free of standard conventionality. Although Jon Batiste is no novice to the jazz world (the HBO series Treme is in part based on his New Orleans family musical legacy), he and Stay Human are currently on their first tour. Strike up the band!
The show opened with a short montage projected onto a screen above the bandstand. Images of iconic entertainers, primarily from the African-American community, were repeatedly flashed at an intense rate, only appearing for milliseconds: Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Beyonce, Wynton Marsalis, etc. As the collage of iconography was interwoven, Jon Batiste’s voice could be heard explaining the motivation for creating a new jazz movement. He talked about how he wanted his music to “bring people together from all walks of life,” and because of that, he and his band chose to name their new album Social Music. After a few moments, the screen went blank and the whole theater darkened. The silhouettes of Jon Batiste (Piano/Vocals), Eddie Barbash (Alto Saxophone), Jamison Ross (Percussion), Ibanda Ruhumbika (Tuba/Trombone), Joe Saylor (Drums), and Barry Stephenson (Bass) floated onto the stage, like wraiths. The screen then came alive with color (throughout the show the band’s technician displayed vibrant red, blue and green backdrops) and the spotlight beamed on Jon Batiste.
From the outset, it was evident that quite a bit of thought was put into the organization of the show. There was a scholarly tone to the performance, led off with the lecture hall style introduction of the projection screen welcome. Jon Batiste, as well as several other members of Stay Human are Julliard graduates. Batiste is a lecturer as well as a musician. Step by step, Batiste and Stay Human presented various facets of New Orleans style musical performance. This included Batiste playing at the piano alone, and then joined by Joe Saylor on snare drum, using both brushes and feet as accompaniment. It also included Barry Stephenson trading in his six string bass guitar for his upright bass. Stephenson then joined Batiste and Saylor in an improvised trio with a single drumstick and wine bottle. The band then would revert to a traditional set with Saylor going back to his full drum set, only to then pick up his tambourine, and anchor the band, in a single file line into the middle of the stage. There they played and danced jubilantly.
Jon Batiste’s musical versatility shined through as he played in vast musical styles including ragtime, blues, gospel, classical, and jazz. His personality was equally as brilliant as he playfully toyed with, and teased the audience, using dramatic pauses between piano chords. He transformed the Rinker Playhouse into a New Orleans style night club or music hall. People in the audience began to actively participate in the show, shouting out “c’mon boy,” and “have fun with it!” in encouragement. A chorus of call and response rang out during Batiste and Stay Human’s rendition of On the Sunny Side of the Street. At one point an overly boisterous audience member finished the song lyric before Batiste could sing it, prompting an infectious laugh from Batiste, that spread throughout the theater.
It wasn’t long before Batiste abandoned his Steinway and Sons piano and picked up his melodica. The melodica is an instrument which is part trumpet, part keyboard, and part harmonica. Batiste led the band in a cover of Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly With His Song. He cleverly incorporated Wyclef Jean’s exclaim of “One time!…two times!” in the chorus, reminiscent of The Fugees’ version of the song on their album titled The Score. Batiste’s superb execution of vibrato on the melodica at times caused the instrument to sound more like an accordion than harmonica. With melodica in hand, he led the band off stage and into the audience where he sought out couples. Batiste then began to offer serenades much like an accordionist might do on the streets of Paris. Only this serenade included a parade, New Orleans style, made so with the generous, melodious vibrations of Ibanda Ruhumbika’s tuba.
Batiste and Stay Human stayed true to their name by adding a human touch to the show, when they came into the audience, sat down in vacant seats, shook hands with people, and invited people to sing along with them as they continued to play. They became the accompaniment for the audience, and allowed a communal experience to take place. When finally they stopped playing, Batiste thanked the crowd and told everyone that he loved them. As Batiste and Stay Human exited the Rinker Playhouse, the crowd applauded and began begging for more. Batiste and Stay Human obliged the audience, by marching back into the theater to the tune of Just a Closer Walk With Thee. A religious, spiritual mood filled the place, and the band and audience swayed back and forth in harmony, singing, humming, moaning and crying out together.
There were other moments in the show when the human factor arose in a not so desired fashion. Like when Eddie Barbash struggled to get through a vocal solo, proving that he was much more of an exceptional (and exceptional he was!) saxophonist than crooner. Or when Barry Stephenson had to do a high wire act on the stage, upon a cargo net of amplifier wires, just to make his way to Joe Saylor’s drum set. And there was also a moment when Batiste passed the microphone to Jamison Ross in an ill-timed exchange, and Ross flubbed his lyric on Sunny Side of the Street.
But the energy of Jon Batiste and Stay Human made the few human errors forgivable. These were people performing, not computers. The ergonomics can be worked out later. Everyone knows Batiste is the lead vocalist, so who really cares if he lets someone else in the band sing a song. In fact, all of the band members were called on to sing. The little mistakes, unedited by audio and video software, for me, are what give certain musical performances character. For example, I love hearing the squeaking of John “Jabo” Starks’ high hat pedal on some of James Brown’s recordings with the J.B.’s. It reminds me that there was a human being behind all of those incredible drum grooves, that were later sampled over and over again, in loops, for hip-hop records (coincidentally, James Brown’s music played in the theater’s audio sound system between sets). And when it comes down to it, that’s what it’s all about-being human. We’re all human, right?
After the show, Jon Batiste and Stay Human met the audience outside of the theater. They sat at a table and signed autographs for people who bought their CD. They took pictures with fans. They were very down to earth and approachable for anyone who wanted to meet them. I walked out, looking at the smiles on the faces of people who seemed genuinely touched by what they had just seen, heard and felt. I then felt an appreciation for what Anthony DeCurtis quoted Jon Batiste as saying in the playbill: “And Stay Human, then, is a reminder of what connects us all. It’s our mantra. With so many ways to communicate at our disposal, we must not forget the transformative power of a live music experience and genuine human exchange.” I guess being human isn’t such a bad thing after all.