Jon Batiste Will Lead ‘The Late Show With Stephen Colbert’ Band in a Style He Sees Fit
There comes a point in almost any scheduled performance by Jon Batistewhen he pops up from the piano and strides into the crowd, tootling his melodica, a toylike wind instrument, with bandmates in tow. It’s a trademark shtick that happens to carry a whiff of the authentic, given Mr. Batiste’s lifelong familiarity with New Orleans second-line parades. Naturally, it was one of the factors that led to his role as bandleader on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” which makes its debut on CBS on Tuesday.
Mr. Batiste, 28, has a lanky frame, a dandyish flair and a breezy disregard for genre pieties. It’s easy to picture him acclimating fast to a late-night talk show, even if the stubborn constraints of the format seem at odds with his brand of free-range spontaneity. The “love riot” — his favored term for a flash-mob-style street jam, which he facilitates through social media — is only the most literal manifestation of his drive to connect viscerally with an audience, winning over many startled listeners on the move, and at close range.
This summer he and his band, Stay Human, played the Newport Folk Festival and the Newport Jazz Festival, on consecutive weekends at Fort Adams State Park in Rhode Island. Each of their afternoon sets ended, inevitably, with a pied-piper ramble into the throng. Both sets included Mr. Batiste’s jubilant take on “If You’re Happy and You Know It” — ammunition for any killjoys inclined to distrust the earnest, infantilizing aspects of his style.
But Mr. Batiste also tailored his message and band lineup for the two festival constituencies, demonstrating a sharp attunement to context that will be crucial in his new gig. “There’s a reinvention of the role happening in many of the late-night shows right now,” he said after his jazz festival set, referring to a wave of turnover that has made bandleaders out of the comedians Fred Armisen (“Late Night With Seth Meyers”) and Reggie Watts (“The Late Late Show With James Corden”), and a household name out of the Roots, his direct competition on NBC’s “The Tonight Show” with Jimmy Fallon.
Mr. Batiste, sitting on a couch in Fort Adams with his principal bandmates, the alto saxophonist Eddie Barbash and the drummer Joe Saylor, continued: “What that means is, there’s an opportunity for innovation. So if there’s anything that I would draw from the situation, it’s that your imagination is your best friend right now. Be imaginative.”
That’s a natural takeaway for Mr. Batiste, who comes from a noted musical family in Kenner, La., a New Orleans suburb. He was 8 when he played his first gigs, as a percussionist, with the Batiste Brothers Band. After switching to piano, he was mentored by a distant cousin, the clarinetist Alvin Batiste. He moved to New York to attend Juilliard, and was soon turning up on concert stages with the trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, which is how I first encountered him, about a decade ago.
Mr. Marsalis is, famously, another scion of a musical family in Kenner; his father, the pianist Ellis Marsalis, was another of Mr. Batiste’s teachers in New Orleans. Mr. Batiste shares the Marsalis family trait of jazz evangelism: He’s an artistic director at large at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, for which he’ll play a fall benefit on Oct. 28 at the Alhambra Ballroom. Still, Mr. Batiste clarified, “I’m not out to be an ambassador for an art form, because ultimately I feel like your playing does that.” His stated cause is “social music,” a phrase meant to encompass jazz and much else besides, and the title of his most recent album, released on Razor & Tie in 2013.
It’s instructive to compare Mr. Batiste to another proud product of Kenner — the saxophonist Branford Marsalis, Wynton’s older brother, who served as the first bandleader on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno. He lasted just three years in that role, never shaking the impression that his rapport with Mr. Leno felt grudging and strained.
Mr. Batiste has a leg up in that regard: He fell into brisk comic rhythm with Mr. Colbert last summer, during an interview on “The Colbert Report.” The exchange, which pivoted on the subject of improvisation, left a strong impression.
“As soon as that interview was over,” Mr. Colbert said recently on “The Late Show Podcast,” “I went, ‘Damn, I think that’s a guy I could actually spend a few years onstage with.’ ” (It didn’t hurt that Mr. Batiste also staged a love riot, leading Mr. Colbert and his audience outside the studio.)
One recent hallmark of the late-night landscape is the quirky bit designed to go viral; the Roots, a hip-hop group known for high-minded sociopolitical fury, have made this such a core feature of Mr. Fallon’s show that it’s easy to forget how shrewdly it plays against type. Questlove, the drummer and self-declared music geek who leads the Roots, manages to balance frivolity and substance, a strategy even more ideally suited to Mr. Batiste.
By way of example: In 2011, as he was finishing his master’s degree in jazz studies at Juilliard, Mr. Batiste self-released a live EP, “My N.Y.,” recorded entirely on moving subway cars. It opens with a parade-strut version of “You Are My Sunshine” that quickly morphs into “Just Dance,” by Lady Gaga.
Questlove enthusiastically endorsed Mr. Batiste in GQ in 2013, before the “Late Show” appointment: “Google him now, see his show, thank me later.” So any rivalry between the Roots and Stay Human will probably be friendly, echoing the dynamic between Mr. Fallon and Mr. Colbert. (Still, competition should raise the stakes all around.)
Besides, there’s a bigger yardstick for Mr. Batiste and Mr. Colbert: Paul Shaffer’s landmark run as bandleader and sidekick to David Letterman, on two groundbreaking late-night shows. That partnership always crackled, and the mutual regard was clear.
“Jon has it with Stephen,” Mr. Shaffer said last week, judging by the available evidence. “So we don’t have that to worry about.” One sign of continuity between “Late Show” eras is that Mr. Batiste has met Mr. Shaffer for lunch, seeking insights; another is that Dan Fetter, Mr. Shaffer’s former logistical consigliere, has been retained as house band producer for the new show.
Still, the sense of transition is obvious. “They’re starting a brand-new thing; let’s see what they do,” Mr. Shaffer said. “Jon is a great musician, and I hope I’m walking by the theater at 5:30, because I have a sneaking suspicion they’re going to be in the street a little bit.”
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