Jon Batiste Funks Up Carnegie Hall With Debut of His Grand ‘American Symphony’: Concert Review

What does one 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-Pixar’s “Soul”) and leaving the bandleader gig at a top-rated talk show (“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”)? If you’re protean pianist and megawatt personality Jon Batiste, you write a symphony — an ”American Symphony” no less, its title raising the stakes on the grandeur of the piece that premiered at Carnegie Hall Thursday night.

“If (the) symphony orchestra was invented in the 21st Century, what music would they play?” asked Batiste 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 its debut). “Who would be in the orchestra and how would that look, how would that feel?”

What it would look like was answered by a 63-person-strong ensemble, plus Batiste, a vision in a crisp blue velvet suit who bounded down the hall’s aisles to make his entrance. He proceeded to spend the next 90 minutes not just playing the piano but stalking the stage in search of giant Moogs to hammer, drums to pound and room to dance and generally co-conducting the night’s proceedings as if pouring gas onto a fire to provoke something incendiary and wild… and yet not without precedent. 

From Ornette Coleman’s symphonic “Skies of America” and Duke Ellington’s “Black, Brown and Beige” orchestral work to Wynton Marsalis’ “Blood on the Fields” to nearly everything symphonic composer Aaron Copland ever wrote, crafting a whirlwind of uniquely American music touched by its historic divisions and its joys of union has long been part of the stately, classical-into jazz canon. 

With Batiste’s “American Symphony” (inspired to this reviewer’s ears by the above-mentioned scores, along with 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 its sour flavors.

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Broken into four movements — “Capitalism,” “Integrity,” “Globalism” and “Majesty” — Batiste’s contemporary orchestral work is meant to, in his words, “incorporate essential elements of the American democratic system as philosophical frameworks.” Such intent (and intensity) is alive in every note of his score, just as it is the solos of so many of his players. (One only wishes that each member of his 21ST Century orchestra could’ve been introduced as there were so many stellar solos or duets done in tandem with their leader.)

Utilizing uniquely American indigenous and immigrant sounds for a show of diversity and inclusion, Batiste’s symphony’s plays up its mix of cool jazz, classical, Latin continuum, country, noise, funk, folk, hip-hop, opera, gospel, Dixieland, Jamaican, avant-garde and cosmopolitan R&B with every unhinged blast of sound, whether gently nuanced or roaring and thunderous.

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

It wasn’t uncommon within Batiste’s “American Symphony” to witness sirens blaring over booming string sections or streetscape samples and glitch-hop scratches unfurling atop somnolent piano etudes.

If you weren’t busy looking for the country-swinging fiddler jousting with a muted trumpeter’s blare in the crowd on stage, you were playing spot the theremin. Or you craned your neck to see who had the steel drums, koto or banjo among its 63 participants. When there weren’t Native American drums and hollers bumped up against a Brazilian rhythm section to behold, there were breathtaking opera vocalists wailing wordlessly while a white bassoonist and a Black violinist battled each other in aggressive song. On one occasion, there was a tape of children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance humming beneath the surface. In another moment, a family of Black folk vocalists were strumming and singing in quaint, soulful harmony.

Indulgent? Perhaps. Unsubtle? Sometimes. But why not? Batiste’s best work, such as the lively “We Are,” has luxuriated in the all-things-at-once kitchen sink approach to composition, musicianship and homey, Louisiana familial vibes, so there’s little reason, or need, for him to streamline a symphony any more than he would an album opus.

Starting with several tubas honking, a trombone’s elephant-like bray and clanking percussion, ending with Batiste’s rapid-fire solo rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” hokey, showy close and all, it was difficult knowing exactly what movement ceased when, or what singular emotion was being portrayed. At its best, it felt as if Batiste had given his soloists room to roam, improvisationally, which gave the symphony more of a funky, free-jazz feel to go with its often danceable groove.

“How come you’re all sitting down if we’re playing this type of music,” inquired Batiste of the well-heeled audience, ass-dancing in their seats until his remark. From there, Batiste – a hot dog if ever there was and proud of it – began scatting loudly and soulfully as a Hammond organ rolled below him. “We thought this wouldn’t happen,” he said. Ultimately though, “nothing could stop the power of God.”

Jon Batiste at Carnegie Hall (Stephanie Berger)

The most unstoppable element, and unforgettable musicianship in an evening filled with rapturous melodies, scintillating percussive pulses and angular string, reed and brass arrangements dedicated to all that makes America great, and hateful, and great again, came from Batiste. When he wasn’t singing, scatting and screaming wordlessly and winding his vocals through his symphony’s winnowing passages and rising rhythms, Batiste was doing what he does best: playing piano with incendiary ire and godly grace. There were softly elegant and eloquent runs of sophisticated soul leaned against hot-wired Orleans parish piano rolls. There were chic, pastoral touches, light-to-the-touch Louisiana parlor trills and pounding, angry, avant-jazz riffs. There were moments in his playing, in the themes of his “Symphony,” where you could sense disgust and rage with how his country had lost its way. There was resignation, too, and hope for the future in his quickly ascending chords and the heavenly hosanna of its melody. There was him telling the kaleidoscopic story of America – an angry one. A happy one. A spiritually-minded one.

So many great musicians and singers, soloing and acting in tandem with their brethren and sistren, and yet you never forget whose story this “American Symphony” was and who won all the Grammys for telling them in a funky, soulful fashion. It wasn’t just the story of America, and its collage-like charms and vices. This was also Batiste’s story, and he made a handsome orchestral debut of that that story at Carnegie Hall in a truly shining hour.

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