Jon Batiste: Virtual Session

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Jon Batiste - Virtual Session (MPR)

Jon Batiste joined The Current to play a few of his recent songs, plus a conversation with Sean McPherson about the influence of New Orleans on his music, setting his intentions with Stevie Wonder, and recording music outside of a traditional studio environment.

Interview Transcript

Edited for clarity and length.

SEAN MCPHERSON: I am beyond honored to be hanging out with Jon Batiste, a musical legend who is nice enough to be taking a little bit of time out of his day to share some songs with us and some conversation. I also want to give a big shout out to all of the members of Minnesota Public Radio who are making this possible and who are hanging out with us today. So let's welcome Jon Batiste. Jon, how are you doing today?

JON BATISTE: I'm doing great. I'm thinking about all of the different things that we're going to talk about and music that we're going to play. I'm just excited to be able to share this time with you.

Well, the feeling is very mutual. I'm a huge fan of your music and it does seem like, compared to some of the more instrumentally oriented records that you've released, We Are is going to be a different kind of thing. Can you talk to me about your desire to put out this kind of record and how it came to be?

Well artists are always creating, and I'm no different in that I have stores of archival recordings, I call them. Recordings of full albums of all different styles and music that I've made when I was traveling in Havana or traveling to different parts of the world and playing with different musicians. This is just a culmination of so many life experiences of mine. It just lines up with where the world is, in a lot of ways, culturally, globally and then, of course, my personal heritage, those are the three poles of what I was feeling over the course of many years. Starting in 2019, I decided I wanted to take the music that I was making in my dressing room at the Ed Sullivan theater during this six day session and make it into an album. That was an eight month process after that kind of initial six day, feverish, creative zone that I created with collaborators coming in and out between sound checks and rehearsals and me doing other projects and coming back in around the clock recording in my dressing room. Which, by the way, happens to be the dressing room of the great Carol Burnett, who when I got a chance to work with her, she told me all these stories, and it felt like there were spirits and energy in the room that we were tapping into.

That wouldn't even be the most precarious place you've recorded a record right? Didn't you make a whole record in the subway as well?

Yes, actually, it's called My NY and that record, we made that in the subway and on the street corners of New York City. It was a special time too. Everything is about timing for me, if you get the sense already, I'm always trying to figure out how to make the music that I put out not just be something that really means something to me creatively, but aligns with the times that we're in, in ways whether it's direct and explicit, or even if it's allegorical.

Are you the type of man who you'll be sitting at a beautiful grand piano with sunset sound and just go, "This is too comfortable, I wish I was in a cramped backstage," or, "I wish I was at a subway," do you get some kind of extra challenge out of being in a unconventional environment for your recording and writing?

I like to be in a place where I can feel the stimulus of the world around me. So I like to record in non-traditional places because I like to get the inspiration from the world, and the people, and the sounds. I like performing in non-traditional unorthodox places as well because something about that inspires something different to what you would get from your typical studio or your typical stage. But I do oftentimes like the blend so you know with this album we record it in the dressing room and then we also do some field recording some street recordings. We also went to many recording studios, we recorded in some old churches--I'm going to capture these different energies in this different stimuli and create this painting. It's like a canvas--an empty canvas, and I'm taking all these different colors, and every color adds something different when it's blended to the color that's next to it.

Well, we love what you've put together and we're excited to hear some--I want to ask you one question from one of our members and then get into a tune. Sharon had a question, which is--when did you start to play piano, and I'll add to that, when did you start to play music because I know you were first a saxophone player. Did you initially play by ear, or were you dealing with notation right away in your musical journey?

Great question. So I started with music early in my my youth not as early as many who I grew up with, but around eight or nine. At that time, I was playing drums and percussion. My real interest in piano started when I was 11, and moved into the high school years. By the time I was 14, I was leading bands and I was doing a lot of different studying and recording and I'd studied before that in classical music, so I was studying classical music at the same time as I was--oddly enough, I learned a lot from video game music. I listened to video game music as a kid when I was playing, and I didn't know but my subconscious mind was taking these ideas and these themes from the games and creating musical connections. It was a real precursor to my composition and approach to music. So the mix of video game music, growing up in New Orleans in a musical family, studying classical piano and then eventually getting into jazz in middle school and high school and leading my own bands. A blend of all of that was what I was doing.

Well the blend of all of it is pretty intoxicating when you do release your own music as well. Let's get into a song check out a song and then lots more conversation. so honored to be with you Jon Batiste.

Absolutely.

[music: "Freedom" by Jon Batiste]

Well, on behalf of all the people who I'm sure are clapping during their lunch break, I'm going to clap because that is beautiful. You make beautiful music and in that song, you're singing about freedom, and you're talking about moving your body as part of freedom, and I think you're talking about more than that as well. Can you tell me a little bit about what freedom means to you in the world and in musical pursuits?

Freedom is the the right as Mavis Staples says on the album, she says a beautiful quote about freedom is the right for men and women to do what they want. Really, that's a very simple definition. But it can be difficult to exercise your right to do what you want and to exist as you are when things may be trying to cloud that or block that, and I don't think that it's a "do what you want," like whatever you want no matter if it hurts anybody but it's a do what you want, based on the idea that you're a part of the greater whole, and everyone is equal, and everyone has the right to be able to exist as they want. And that's really what it is in music that is beautiful, everything in music that you love, and all the different ways music has been used is amazing when you think that there's only these 12 notes. And everybody has had these 12 notes, Beethoven, Nina Simone, James Brown--and the freedom of how they use those notes and approach those notes, in musical pursuits is what we love. We love to hear how this generation--this person is going to use the notes different to how anyone in centuries past have used those notes. That's really what I'm all about, taking things from the past and blending them with the things in the present to create the future. And that's freedom to me.

Well, it's freedom to our ears as well and it sounds wonderful. You mentioned Mavis Staples in that, and I'm getting questions here from the folks who are watching. One that's really pertinent to it, sounds like the way you like to put together music has to do with being inspired by the times and digesting that along with your own influences and musical heritage. This is a question from a gentleman named Nate, are you inspired by past musicians who you feel also lived up to that credo of making music of the times? Who are your heroes? Who are the sort of the gold standard for folks who digested the times and put it into their music?

Oh my, yes. Absolutely, I'm very influenced by inspiration from the past. To me, that's where inspiration comes from. Inspiration comes from the past. And the creativity to create, what will be the future is really the goal of the artist who is in the present. I think that Stevie Wonder who has called me for my birthday, every year on my birthday for the last five years, and always kind of helps me to set my intentions because my birthday is at the end of the year in November. It's almost like--it's like doing your New Year's resolution with Stevie Wonder. Stevie is one of those heroes to me in the sense of his 'Songs in the Key of Life' or his 'Inner Visions,' the way that those recordings captured the time and also brought so many things from the past into his present-day creative environment to create now what has influenced the future as we've seen in the wake of those albums being released. That's really someone who, as a person who was talking to me when I was making this album was really influential on me.

You get a birthday call from Stevie Wonder, that's got to be one of the greatest feelings in the world. Like, I would just--to have a legend like that ring up your phone. Stevie Wonder--beyond his incredible work in the studio and live has been an outspoken activist. The man is largely responsible for us having Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he took, in some sense more than a year off from his musical career to make sure that he was very active in campaigning for this holiday. He's done a lot to to fight for social justice. Does that inspire you and your path, his work outside and beyond his work in the studio and in live concerts?

Yes, I think it's important when you are an artist and you have a platform, particularly someone who is revered by the younger generation to use your platform to do something that will help that generation to have a better shot at life than you did, even if you had a great shot. You know, my ancestral line goes back all the way to Benin in the Congo, in the Europe of people and then the southern Louisiana Creoles. And then the sharecroppers in, you know, I have four generations of family farmers from Georgia and into Mississippi and then New Orleans was was where my grandparents on both sides settled in. And my family line is in music. So there's so much that has culminated into me having the shot that I have today to be in this position where I'm so privileged and have so many things that I've been able to do because of their sacrifices in their advancement over generations. But then there's also things that I want to be even better for my children and the folks who are coming in the next generation. So for me, it's really all about improvement. And policy and all these different things that we go out and really talk about and try to activate the public around are really just about the improvement of humanity and the improvement of humanity and the expansion of opportunities to everyone so that everybody can have, have a chance to be as great as they can be. Our human resources are our greatest natural resource, and we're wasting those resources every generation when we don't give the folks everywhere the opportunity to do the things that they could be great at. You know, that's really where my beliefs come from, is this idea that we all have this dual nature. We have our lower selves and we have these things that feed our higher selves, our spiritual self, our divine self, music, art, family, community, and exercising our gifts and that's really what inspires me in music and also an activism and also just as a person.

Well, thank you for feeding us during this lunch break and bringing us music and inspiration. Let's get into another song. Jon, just thank you for being so open and hanging out with our members and playing some music for us today. Looking forward to catching another tune.

Yes, indeed. Hello, members. How are you feeling?

[music: "I NEED YOU" by Jon Batiste]

When you walk in a baseline and you're soloing at the same time, and you're kind of encouraging yourself with your vocals. Do you feel like you're doing one thing? Or do you feel like you're doing four things, like where's your head at when you're working in so many different avenues?

I'm thinking about the feel of it all. You know, I'm thinking about it as one thing. It's all just a great feeling to capture. And it's not about the theory or the notes. I never think about theory or notes. I'm really, I know all of that stuff very well, obviously, that's something I've studied intensely. I just don't think about it when I'm playing. I just think about feeling and I try to approach it as a child would approach it. So I'm always trying to surprise myself. So when you hear me talking to myself, it literally is, is me feeling a sense of discovery while I'm playing. I just want to--that's my goal when I'm playing is to capture a feeling and to surprise myself, because if I surprise myself, then I'm sure that people will feel surprised and feel that there's something that is capturing them. It's a journey.

You work a lot of discovery-like energy into your music, even in pretty highly structured places like a late night television show. I was watching the first night that you were doing the gig, so many years ago now. You exuded so much comfort and so much enthusiasm about your fellow players on night one, right? I wasn't watching but I'm sure the first night for Kevin Eubanks, he was like, let's get everything right. Like, you know, Paul Shaffer, let's get everything right. But you from night one, I was like, this man is about his collaborators. This man is about the surprise of the moment. I can channel that on a late night jam session with 12 people watching. How have you been able to maintain that sort of level of letting the music come to you and the freedom that I hear every time you touch the keyboard, and I even hear when you don't. When I just see you with your hands above the keyboard, just enjoying what the rest of the band is doing. How do you keep that freedom in these really demanding stressful settings?

I think the beauty of understanding where your gift comes from and how it resonates--my gift as a musician, as a bandleader, as an artist comes from the things that make me unique. And we all have things that make us all very unique, everything about you and everything about your family, and everything about your experiences. All these things that have culminated into you being you are so unique. As an artist, your goal is to take those things and use them as the impetus to create. Taking that stuff and filtering the world around you through your unique sensibility. That means that there's nothing that you can do that is wrong. If you're sticking with who you are, and presenting that in all different occasions in all different setups, you can't lose if you're yourself. That's really something that took years of me really kind of practicing that almost as a spiritual practice. You know, joy is a spiritual practice. Authenticity is a spiritual practice. All these different ways of being are a spiritual practice. As an artist, listening to music and playing music is like a spiritual ritual. If you think about it like that, then you're not going to be stuck on technical aspects or theoretical aspects of music making or the technical aspect of being in a production or a film score. You're going to be good at that because you've practiced and studied, you know, going to Juilliard, and being from this musical environment, and soaking all that up at an early age, it helps but it's not the end all be all. The end all be all is, who are you? And let's hear that. Let's see that. Let's feel that.

I think you did bring a lot of yourself to the work you just did on the Soul soundtrack and the score and congratulations on the Golden Globe. We got a question about this from Valerie Dean. She says, do you have plans to work on additional films? And also what was it like working with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, another person asked that question, what was that working experience like? And do you have any plans to do more work in the film world?

Yes, actually, I'm--there's a lot of stuff in the works. Pixar has been great a collaborator. I can't talk about much of it right now. But it's great. I do plan to, yes, the answer is yes to that. It's something that I've always done in on the side of obviously, being a musician artist, and making albums, and touring, and things like that. You know, I've worked on two Spike Lee films, I've worked on Treme and different things in film and TV and obviously recently with the show is brought other opportunities, but I continue to build on that in this time. Particularly when we can't tour, it's always been a dream of mine to go in that direction. More and more, and I think it just is happening earlier and earlier because of where we are in the world, which I'm not at all mad about. I think Trent and Atticus have been some of the greatest collaborators that I've known--that was really great when we first met, you know, I started working on Soul two years ago. And it was a two year process of working on the score. And the score was something that, even before the film was made and finished we were working on the music. We would send music back and forth to each other, we would sit and listen. And at moments, we split the score and other parts we work together. It was a beautiful collaboration because we all just had the same intention. It wasn't something that felt like we were trying to blend genres or anything. I don't even believe in genres, it's just people and their music and their expression. And that's what it's about when you align the intentions together, which from the beginning, we all just wanted to make something that was innovative and unique and special. That's what the collaboration was like across the board with everybody, Trent, Atticus, all the folks at Pixar, it was just a beautiful, open collaboration.

Well, I mean, the proof is in the pudding. It is such an incredible selection of tunes and and your work on it is really, really awesome. Congratulations on the success and hopefully more of that in the future. I understand you can't talk details. But we will be waiting with bated breath. You brought up something in that last conversation about the fact that traveling right now is not as possible, especially traveling with a musical ensemble. Deb wrote a question, how important is performing with other musicians to you creatively? How has social distancing affected your creative process?

I've always loved performing with other musicians. I'll always love that because it's it's a different feeling to anything in music. It's different to being in a studio, it's different to writing and composing. And arranging is different to producing, playing with musicians in a room for people is unmatched. And it's really changed a lot of how I appreciate it. You know, we did something recently, which was the first time I played for people in months. And that was when we played for folks at the Javits Center in New York City, we played for the essential workers and for the vaccination workers. And we played for 30 of them, and we played for the folks who were in the vaccination clinic. And, you know, it was a really cumbersome process, obviously, to get tested four or five times, and to have the distancing, and the musicians had to be six to 12 feet apart. And horn players had to be 12 feet apart, we had to limit the number of musicians, but even going through all the hoops of that made me realize how much I miss playing for people and how special that exchange is, which I think will be even more heightened emotionally, once we're out of the pandemic, because people will have not felt that and and when they do, it will be times 10. And for the musicians, it will be times 10. So yeah, when we get a chance to tour this album, and to present the kind of love, joy, and community vibration that I always bring to the shows that I do. I think it's gonna be some of the best live performances that I've ever had the chance of being the spearhead of, and I'm looking forward to really getting out on the road whenever that is.

Even with the horn players 12 feet apart, was the trombone still too loud? [both laugh] You mentioned your work. You mentioned your work on Treme, and New Orleans is just so palpable in all the music you do. And you also mentioned spending a little bit of time in Havana and I've heard people say that New Orleans really should be understood as a Caribbean city as far as the background. And so I was curious, what is misunderstood about New Orleans music and the relationship with Cuban music. And then what's special about coming up in such a musically fertile city?

Well, what's special about New Orleans music that's misunderstood often is that it's just a party city where people are just having a good time--Bourbon Street and all this stuff that you see in the kind of propaganda, tourism propaganda. That's all that is about and it's so much deeper than that. It's really a manifestation of what America and American idealism is all about. In that you have a city that is a blend of the African, French, Spanish, English, Caribbean--all of these blends and it's built into the city, baked into the city and architecture, in the music, in the customs and traditions, in the cuisine. It's amazing that there's attire for things and and there's rituals and practices and traditions that are embedded in this place for centuries, and is an example of what American compromise and the coexistence of cultures underneath the American ideal is really all about. And to have a form of music that is born from that, that is the birthplace, and the root music of all of these styles of American music, whether its roots, music of blues, and Americana, and folk, and blues gospel, and spiritual gospel, and aw man--jazz music, obviously, but even early traditional jazz, and New Orleans music, and march music literally from one place, having such an influence on the DNA of that much of American culture and being at the foundation of the American ideal, and representing that in a way that almost nowhere else in the world has been able to capture this kind of confluence of cultures. It's actually so hard to conceptualize and explain that the celebratory aspect of New Orleans culture and how that is such an infectious part of Mardi Gras and everything overshadows the depth in the real special--the specialness of New Orleans even existing in the world.

Well, I gotta say, I think your work both as an actor and also musically on Treme did some service to communicate a little bit more of the depth of neurons. Do you ever see a movie that Branford Marsalis made years ago called The Music Tells You about his--do you what know I'm talking about?

A doc, I remember that.

Yeah, it's a documentary. It was just, that was the first musician I knew much about from New Orleans, who was you know, a contemporary musician. He talks so much about like--if you see somebody in New Orleans, five times that day, you will say hello to them five times. He said in New York, you just go "Hi." And then you never have to say hello to him again. All this greeting and this cordialness. But actually, the whole time you've been talking today I've been thinking about that movie, especially because it's called The Music Tells You because he's kind of talking about the fact that people think I get up here and play whatever I want. I play nothing I want. I play exactly what the music tells me to play. And obviously, he's a very fierce improviser, you are as well. And I see that level of freedom in both of your work that it just seems like you're communicating with this idea of, it's not up to you what's about to happen, you're going to listen to where the music wants to take you. It's taken you to incredible spaces, we're so excited to see what is coming next. I mean, this is it's the single "Cry," I didn't expect a tune like that. I didn't anticipate that out of your work. And we're loving "I Need You," and I just would love to hear another tune that you want to share with us. I also want to give another big heartfelt thank you to the members of Minnesota Public Radio, making this thing possible. And of course, Jon, thank you so much for playing music for us today.

The members of MPR. I really feel like Minnesota Public Radio is such a beautiful thing to be a part of. I remember when I did Live From Here.

Yes!

One of my greatest collaborators, who was nominated for a Grammy this year for album we did together, Cory Wong, the guitarist. Lives in Minnesota, from Minnesota, and our Meditations album--

That's up for a Grammy? [claps]

Yes, it's up for Grammy for Best New Age. And I'm up for another Grammy for the Live at the Vanguard recordings. This is just a really special, special place to have the music represented in--Minnesota is really leading the way. I love playing on Live From Here. I don't know if you've seen that episode or heard that episode.

I actually did. And you know, it's recorded just down the street. You were filling in for Chris Thile and I got my--I host on Saturday nights. So I was DJing two blocks away from you. I got my friend in on the guest list and he was like, "That was incredible." I'm trying to remember the name of the soul singer from New York. Who was the musical guest with you? I can't remember.

Emily King.

Emily King! Yeah, I mean, I love her music and you two together--I mean, that was just a very, very cool thing. Actually, you know, I should ask you, Cory Wong is such a big name in Minnesota. But somehow he's also become so connected with you and so many other great national caliber musicians. How did you connect with Corey? And then how did you come to make this Meditations album with him?

Oh, my goodness. So Cory was in a band, he's in a band Vulfpeck. And Vulfpeck--I've always been a fan of what they're doing and I was listening to them and he was playing with them at some, I believe it was a live performance or video that I saw. One or the other, I just noticed the guitarist and eventually when I was asked to host MPR--on MPR the Live From Here for Chris because he was actually--I was filling in for Chris. Chris wasn't there, I was hosting the show and they asked me to put not only my band together but a whole house band. You know, a complete a completely different ensemble to Stay Human. Blending with Stay Human, obviously, but just something that could fit the mold of the show. And I told them I wanted to call Cory Wong because I heard his guitars and I was like, this guy's great, who is this? And we met there and got a chance to really work together for the first time on Live From Here in Minnesota. I was just so shocked by how he could play so many different styles with with great rhythm and precision. I felt like we had a really interesting chemistry that needed to be expanded on and I had him come and join the Late Show house band several times and one of those trips, I told them we should cut a recording together based on something that we were jamming on, again, in my dressing room. This was recorded in the breaks of the studio time between recording We Are, which, Cory is also playing a lot on We Are. The album We Are and the album Meditations were recorded at the same time in the same period of session. So that's that's a little known fact. But that's how it actually happened.

Wow. I've known Cory for a long time and he's such an incredible player so that's so cool that y'all connected. Let's get into a tune and then we'll probably wrap things up. I'll see if there's any more questions coming in. But if you don't mind sharing one more piece of music we sure appreciate it.

Absolutely. Speaking of Emily King, this is "Cry," which Emily is singing the background vocals on "Cry" on the album.

Are you playing the guitar on it?

Yes, as well as Steve McEwan who I co-wrote the song with, and Robert Randolph, of Robert Randolph and The Family Band.

[music: "Cry" by Jon Batiste]

When you co-write with somebody on a tune like that, how does that go? How is--what does Steve bring to the tune? What did you bring to the tune? How did you arrive at the final rendition?

Steve and I's collaboration is different to what most of my collaborations are like because typically what happens is, I'll always write the lyrics to the verse, and almost always the chorus--and my collaborators are typically there. You know, for instance, Kizzo and Autumn Rowe who I worked on the album with on four or five different tracks. They're contributing different melodic ideas and helping to produce and round out the track. But as far as the story, it's like writing a script. If I'm the lead actor in a film, I want to feel like I can authentically portray that. But with Steve, we have a really good understanding as to how to--it's almost like a Gamble and Huff kind of a thing where he'll sometimes have a chord, or feel, or like a title. And that'll inspire me to do something and I'll take it and write something, then he'll look at--it almost like an editor or he'll suggest, you know, what if you put this or that there, and it kind of goes back and forth. It's more like that versus, you know, with some of the other collaborations, we'll have a moment where it's like a day where we'll create a demo, and then I'll take it off, and go write for maybe, you know, four or five months, or build the production for four or five months, I have to kind of take it and go away. Whereas with Steve it's more of this back and forth.

Well, the both techniques seem to work pretty darn well because the music all sounds fantastic. I'm gonna ask you one question and then let you get on to your way I know you have a very, very busy day. Sharon asked a question, "Being from New Orleans do you have any background singing in French? Have you ever done any any work in the Francophone world and music?"

So funny, you asked that I'm working on something right now. I can't say but my grandfather is Creole French, and he had the Creole French dialect--it's kind of like the Cajun-speaking version of French. When we were growing up, he always would talk in that way. Sometimes, you know, it would be a mix of English and French like a patois. So he had songs that we would sing in that kind of dialect from--he was from Lafayette, Louisiana, which is a really, it's a Cajun capital of Louisiana. And, you know, it's where Clifton Chenier is from, you know, zydeco--zydeco accordion, the king. The zydeco king of all of the Cajun music of our Louisiana homeland, and I learned that, but I don't do it publicly often enough. I think I should, I'm trying not to tell you about this project. There's a song "Eh La Bas" that is a traditional song. I've done that one. I like that kind of stuff. But I have to work it out because I don't live with them anymore. My grandfather passed away and since he's gone, we don't really--we don't speak it as much.

Well, I understand you got to keep tight lipped about certain things. But I'm sure that when you do bring a little French into your musical universe, it'll be very enjoyable.

I think it's gonna be a vibe.

Jon I will say it is always a vibe with you. There is not a random Thursday in the middle of November that I haven't seen you bring it on Stephen Colbert. You always bring that spirit and it's contagious. It's contagious right now. I'm going to have a pep in my step for the rest of the day. Just being around your energy for an hour. I imagine that's true for everybody who's hanging out, all of our members. Jon, from the bottom of our hearts. Thank you for being here for taking some time. And also to all the MPR members that make this possible. Thank you so much.

Absolutely. Thank you. I love y'all, have a good one.

Songs Played

06:18 Freedom
16:18 I NEED YOU
36:56 Cry

Credits

Host - Sean McPherson
Producer - Derrick Stevens
Digital Producer - Jesse Wiza
Technical Director - Eric Romani

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