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'Fresh Air' Favorites: Bandleader Jon Batiste

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. This week we're looking back on the decade that just ended and listening back to some of our favorite interviews of the past 10 years. Today we're featuring some of our favorite performances. Our final one today is with pianist Jon Batiste, the music director at "The Late Show With Stephen Colbert," where he leads his band Stay Human.

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.

We recorded this interview in 2018, when Batiste released his album "Hollywood Africans." We started with a track from it, 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 have to - 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: 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 (playing piano). And so I'll get this going (playing piano). Or I'm doing something like (playing piano) - 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 (playing piano). I can cry (playing piano). And I can even do a little bit of dancing (playing piano). Let me do the dance one more time (playing piano, laughter).

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 in my left hand that I really love. When I get that feeling, it's like a growl of a lion, this (playing piano). So I'll be playing, you know. (Playing piano).

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: 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). You hear, (singing) oh, little Liza, little Liza Jane - oh, little Liza, little Liza Jane. Or - (singing) oh, when the saints go marching in, oh, when the saints go marching in.

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 at 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 (playing piano). So that's the rhythm in this (playing piano).

GROSS: I hear so much Monk in your playing - again, not imitating him but having kind of absorbed him and made it your own. 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, and it's 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. (Playing piano).

GROSS: Oh, that's great. Do you still listen to a lot of Monk?

BATISTE: I have a few people who I listen to regularly. I always come back to them, I'll say. I don't listen to Monk regularly, but I always come back to his music. Bach is another one - James Brown, Nina Simone. Oh, my goodness...

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 really 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's Passion" (ph) - I was listening to that maybe yesterday, 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: (Laughter) 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.

But there are two voices which I really enjoy. You know, there's (playing piano). That's the left hand. And the right hand's (playing piano). And it's moving all of a sudden. But it's just two voices. You see - 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. Just - that's life. That's our journey exemplified in a simple piece that he wrote for his kids. That's amazing.

GROSS: 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?

BATISTE: Yes.

GROSS: 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 - like (playing piano). 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) it's - 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 kind of (playing piano). And then (playing piano). And that's it. Oh, I get it. Now, if you put a bassline on it and some different harmonies on it, you can get a vibe like a (playing piano). Get some church on it.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BATISTE: Just bring out some of the emotions of it. And then, when you play (playing piano).

GROSS: (Laughter).

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) Like, (singing) if you're happy and you know it, clap your hands. If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands. Oh, if you're happy and you know it, and you really want to show it, go on and show it. If you're happy and you know it, clap your hands. Yes (playing piano).

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, recorded in 2018. Today we featured a few of our favorite concerts we've done over the past decade. If you want to hear more FRESH AIR concerts from the last decade or previous decades it's easy at our new FRESH AIR archive site. You can find it at freshairarchive.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.