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From discipline comes freedom

Pianist melds styles to make 'social music'

By Andrew Gilbert
Globe Correspondent / April 26, 2009
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PALO ALTO, Calif. - At its conception, jazz melded the blues and street music of African-Americans with the European classical tradition carried by New Orleans Creoles of color. Rooted in Crescent City culture, Jonathan Batiste is in the midst of creating an ambitious new synthesis that marries the conservatory with the nightclub.

At 22, the New Orleans native is one of jazz's most dauntingly talented young pianists, a recent Juilliard graduate who started his career as an 8-year-old playing percussion in the popular New Orleans funk and R&B band run by his cousins, the Batiste Brothers. He's spent the past two years backing vocalist Cassandra Wilson, providing luscious accompaniment on her 2008 standards session, "Loverly," and recently joined trumpeter Roy Hargrove's hard bop quintet.

In his own group he's developing what he calls "social music," an approach that balances classical music's compositional imperative with the New Orleans "laissez les bon temps rouler" ethos.

"One of the main concepts I've been working on is writing jazz music that has open windows where you can freely improvise, but with stern, strict parameters, with notes and dynamics predetermined as if it was classical music," Batiste said last week before a Stanford University concert. "I think this concept makes the music freer in terms of improvisation, because if there's no structure, how can there really be any freedom?"

Batiste's evolving balance of freedom and discipline will be on display at Scullers on Thursday, when he makes his Boston debut as a bandleader with a quintet featuring bassist Phil Kuehn, drummer Joe Saylor, tenor saxophonist Matt Marantz, and alto saxophonist/flutist Eddie Barbash. At the Stanford concert, the pianist offered an impressive exhibition of his skill as an arranger by radically redesigning "So What" and "Freddie Freeloader" for a program celebrating the 50th anniversary of Miles Davis's classic album "Kind of Blue."

He was tapped to lead the ad hoc sextet at Stanford by saxophonist, arranger, and archivist Loren Schoenberg, who first heard Batiste play as a promising high school student at Jazz Aspen Snowmass, a summer academy Schoenberg runs with bassist Christian McBride. "Since he went to Juilliard he's grown exponentially in terms of artistry and technique," says Schoenberg, executive director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, which co-presented the concert. "I've heard him do things in the last year I've never heard done before. His music is visceral, exciting, innovative, and funny."

In other words, Batiste is heir to an ostentatiously entertaining New Orleans piano tradition that dates back to Jelly Roll Morton. Though Batiste left the city at 17, he's maintained strong ties through his family, an extended clan that includes more than 30 musicians, and regular appearances at JazzFest. During his celebrated performance there in 2006, he offered an encyclopedic eight-minute rendition of Morton's "E Flat Blues" with a long quote from Chopin's "Revolutionary Etude," the kind of showmanship long practiced by New Orleans keyboard savants like Professor Longhair and James Booker.

"It was theatrical, clearly locating himself in the New Orleans piano tradition," says Alex Rawls, editor of the leading New Orleans music magazine, OffBeat. "What was impressive was that he didn't lose himself in what seemed like a tribute to James Booker. It wasn't abandoning what he was doing, but reminding you of another thread of influence."

Batiste's most recent album, "Live in New York: At the Rubin Museum of Art," offers another look at how he draws on his musical heritage. With its sing-song melody, his tune "Kindergarten" is a playful incantation set to the chord changes of "Sweet Georgia Brown."

"It's similar to a folk melody from early New Orleans culture," said Batiste, his voice carrying the soft drawl of his Southern upbringing. "When you hear it you feel like a kid again."

His ability to turn a childhood association into an effective jazz vehicle also finds expression on the melodica, the toy-like reed instrument with a small keyboard. Batiste sees the melodica as a physical representation of his sensibility - populist, playful, and full of expected depths.

"It's looked at as a toy, but if you can make music and art on it on a serious level," Batiste says, "then anything can be used to express something."

JONATHAN BATISTE BAND

At: Scullers Thursday night at 8. Tickets are $18 at 617-562-4111 or www.ticketweb.com.