Jon Batiste has fun at Carnegie Hall with the debut of his great ‘American Symphony’: concert review


What do you do for an encore after winning five honors at the 64th Grammys (including Album of the Year for “We Are”), an Oscar for Best Original Score (for co-composing Disney’s “Soul”- Pixar) and left the concert bandleader on a top notch talk show (“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”)? If you are a protean pianist and a megawatt personality Jon Batisteyou are writing a symphony — a “American Symphony” no less, its title upping the ante on the grandeur of the piece that premiered at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night.

“If (the) symphony orchestra were invented in the 21st century, what music would they play?” Batiste asked in an interview with “CBS Mornings” earlier this year (when “American Symphony” still had a May 2022 date, before the pianist got COVID and postponed his debut). “Who would be in the orchestra and what would that look like, how would that feel?”

What it would look like was answered by a set of 63, plus Batiste, a vision in a crisp blue velvet suit that swept down the aisles of the venue to make its entrance. He continued to spend the next 90 minutes not just playing the piano, but stalking the stage for giant Moogs to pound, drums to pound and room to dance to and generally co-lead the night’s proceedings as if he poured gas on a fire to cause something. incendiary and savage… and yet not without precedent.

From Ornette Coleman’s symphonic work “Skies of America” ​​to Duke Ellington’s orchestral work “Black, Brown and Beige” to Wynton Marsalis’ “Blood on the Fields”, almost everything the symphonic composer Aaron Copland has never written, creating a whirlwind of quintessentially American music touched by its historical divisions and joys of union have long been part of the majestic canon of classical to jazz.

With Batiste’s “American Symphony” (inspired to this reviewer’s ears by the aforementioned scores, as well as Bernard Herrmann’s cinematic themes for “North by Northwest” and “Cape Fear,” Frank Zappa’s “200 Motels,” “Max Roach and Oscar Brown’s “We Insist!” and Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions”, the composer and musician simply sweetened the melting pot without ignoring the tangy flavors.

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Divided into four movements – “Capitalism”, “Integrity”, “Globalism” and “Majesty” – Batiste’s contemporary orchestral work is meant, in his own words, to “incorporate essential elements of the American democratic system as philosophical frameworks “. Such intent (and intensity) is alive in every note of his score, just like in the solos of so many of his players. (One only wishes every member of his 21st century orchestra could have been featured because there were so many stellar solos or duets performed in tandem with their conductor.)

Using unique native and immigrant American sounds for a show of diversity and inclusion, Batiste’s symphony plays its blend of cool jazz, classical, Latin continuum, country, noise, funk, folk, hip-hop, opera, gospel, dixieland, Jamaican, edgy, cosmopolitan R&B with every messy sonic explosion, whether slightly nuanced or roaring and thunderous.

There were raw edgy interpolations of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “We Shall Overcome” in the mix of the symphony, both songs pivotal to the history of the Black Experience.

It was not uncommon within Batiste’s “American Symphony” to witness sirens blaring over soaring string sections or streetscape samples and glitch-hop scratches unfolding over etudes. drowsy pianos.

If you weren’t busy looking for the country fiddler playing with a muted trumpeter in the onstage crowd, you were playing theremin. Or you craned your neck to see who had steel drums, koto or banjo among its 63 participants. When there weren’t Native American drums and shouts clashing with a Brazilian rhythm section, there were jaw-dropping opera singers moaning wordlessly as a white bassoonist and a black violinist fought in an aggressive song. On one occasion, there was a band of children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance humming beneath the surface. At another time, a family of black folk singers strummed and sang in picturesque, soulful harmony.

Indulgent? Maybe. Not subtle? Sometimes. But why not? Batiste’s best work, like the anime “We Are,” delved into the all-in-one kitchen sink approach to songwriting, musicality, and Louisiana family vibes, he n So there’s no reason or need for him to rationalize a symphony any more than an album opus.

Beginning with several honks of tubas, the braying of an elephant, and the clanking percussion of a trombone, ending with Batiste’s sweeping solo rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” hokey, showy and all, it was hard to know exactly what movement had ceased when, or what singular emotion was represented. At best, it was as if Batiste had given his soloists room to roam, improvise, which gave the symphony a more funky, free-jazz feel to go with its often danceable groove.

“How come y’all are all seated if we’re playing this kind of music,” Batiste asked the well-heeled audience, who were ass-dancing in their seats until his remark. From there, Batiste – a hot dog if ever there was one and proud of it – began scattering loudly and emotionally as a Hammond organ rolled beneath him. “We thought it wouldn’t happen,” he said. Ultimately, however, “nothing could stop the power of God.”


Jon Batiste at Carnegie Hall (Stephanie Berger)

The most unstoppable element and unforgettable musicality of an evening filled with ravishing melodies, scintillating percussive pulses and angular arrangements of strings, reeds and brass dedicated to all that makes America great, and detestable, and still great, came from Batiste. When he wasn’t singing, scattering and shouting wordlessly and coiling his voice through the winnowing passages and rising rhythms of his symphony, Batiste was doing what he does best: playing the piano with incendiary anger and divine grace. There were softly elegant and eloquent tracks of sophisticated soul pressed against piano rolls from the parish of Orleans. There were classy pastoral touches, light-touch Louisiana parlor trills, and punchy, angry avant-jazz riffs. There were times in his playing, in the themes of his “Symphony,” where one could feel the disgust and rage at how his country had gone astray. There was also resignation and hope for the future in its rapidly rising chords and the celestial hosanna of its melody. There was him telling the kaleidoscopic story of America – an angry story. A happy one. A spiritual spirit.

So many great musicians and singers, playing solo and acting in tandem with their siblings, and yet you’ll never forget whose story that “American Symphony” was and who won all the Grammys for telling them in a funky and moving way. It wasn’t just the story of America, and its collage-like charms and vices. It was Batiste’s story too, and he made a fine orchestral debut of that story at Carnegie Hall at a truly brilliant hour.

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