Jon Batiste is a man in his prime. He can draw a crowd on his name recognition as Stephen Colbert’s bandleader, but on Friday night at the Cistern, he bared his soul and showed us all why he’s here in the first place.
“I’m going on a journey and I invite you to come along with me,” he offered, before launching into an improvisational boogie woogie romp, citing the sound of his hometown, Kenner, on the outskirts of New Orleans.
By that point, however, the journey was well underway. Batiste took the stage in white sneakers and a trim fitting black suit with white polka dots. He approached the sparkling Steinway & Sons but didn’t take a seat — within the first minute, he was playing the piano by its strings, leaned over its inner body as he turned the instrument into both a drum and a harp. Any concerns that Friday’s solo show might be more subdued than his Saturday performance with the Dap-Kings were alleviated in moments. In just the first song, the audience witnessed intense build-ups accompanied by guttural scat vocalizations, beautiful crescendos, and all-out jamming driven by staccato left-hand percussion on the piano’s bass notes.
Batiste finished his opening number and turned to the audience with a full toothy grin, and the crowd roared with approval. He let us know that the “energy you give is what I give back to you,” just before entering his Professor Longhair-esque “trance on a theme.” Although his recommendation that we dance didn’t inspire the crowd to its feet just yet (it rarely does at Spoleto), he did inspire a clap-and-sing-along, before resetting the energy with his enchanting take on “St. James Infirmary.”
“Let’s continue to use music as a way to unify people,” Batiste pleaded, introducing a song, “Keep On Keepin’ On,” from his forthcoming T-Bone Burnett-produced album. With hints of Randy Newman, the playful tune inspired another elaborate bit of singing-and-clapping crowd participation that set an early high bar for crowd enthusiasm at Spoleto 2018.
Batiste manages to stun his audience with confidence and style. There’s no appearance of showing off, even when he bangs a chord with his elbow and nails it — he has the rare ability to absolutely floor you, acknowledge how good it is, and still seem humble doing it.
Thelonius Monk’s “Round Midnight” reminded us that even as Batiste borrows from his influences, he’s already one of their peers at just 31-years-old. He called Monk a kindred spirit, saying that by playing Monk’s music, he hoped to “illuminate or at least understand it better.”
The set ended with Batiste walking through the crowd with his harmonaboard (a breath-fueled hand keyboard). After the first lines of “When the Saints Go Marching In,” he commanded — gently — that we get out of our chairs. When everyone complied, he transitioned into a hummed rendition of “Amazing Grace” that inspired the entire audience to sing along, recalling the song’s healing power in Charleston after the massacre at Emanuel AME Church.
Batiste had done it all in just over an hour. He’d left jaws agape. He’d shown us things we didn’t know could be done with a piano. He’d made us close our eyes and swing like any great jazz pianist will. He’d brought us to our feet, he’d opened our hearts and got us singing, and he’d unified us. When he retook the stage and played Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World,” it felt like everything an encore should be — a perfect complement to a complete and total performance.