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"We play all kinds of music," says Jonathan Batiste, seated at the piano of Moldy Fig, a smartly renovated Lower East Side jazz club. The place is named for so-called jazz purists who decried the 1920s swing that supplanted traditional New Orleans jazz—and for those who defended swing against a nascent bebop movement. Batiste knows this history of squabbles over style, and he pokes fun at its contemporary variants. "We're gonna play jazz tunes in the jazz style," he says. "We're gonna play tunes that aren't jazz and jazz 'em up. We're gonna play tunes that are kind of jazz and make 'em even more jazzy."
He segues from a clever rearrangement of Lady Gaga's "Just Dance" to Thelonious Monk's "'Round Midnight," then stands up, grabs a melodica, and rips into a version of "You Are My Sunshine" befitting a New Orleans second-line parade. Later that night, Batiste slips me a self-produced album by his Stay Human Band, My N.Y. It was recorded on the subway—not the platform, but on trains in motion. "This is where we really live," he says.
A week later, on a chilly Monday night, Batiste stands next to a Sabrett stand in front of the Time Warner Center, points his melodica skyward, and rips into "My Favorite Things." Joe Saylor slaps a tambourine, Eddie Barbash harmonizes on alto saxophone, and Ibanda Ruhumbika lays down a bassline on tuba. Batiste met all three musicians at the Juilliard School of Music—Saylor and Barbash in the jazz program (from which Batiste graduated in 2008), Ruhumbika through the classical division.
The Stay Human Band head down the escalators of Columbus Circle and board the A train. (The show's starting point had been announced on Facebook and Twitter.) Soon, the hymn "Just a Closer Walk With Thee" gives way to "Country by Choice," a complex tune composed by trumpeter Nicholas Payton, who is among the illustrious alumni of the high school–level New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA); Batiste went there, too. When the train lurches into 42nd Street, Barbash nearly loses his footing but clings tight to his alto and his phrasing. One couple carries on their conversation, unmoved, but the guy seated directly across unburies his head from his iPhone and bobs it to the beat.
"I'm doing this for an artistic reason," Batiste says. "Jazz performances can seem esoteric, like an experiment or a recital. Here, there's no hat passed around. We're not practicing, either. We're playing at the highest level we can. And we're doing it two feet from your face, right where you live." In fact, the Stay Human Band sound as sharp crammed into a subway car as they do onstage at a club—and edgier, in a good way.
At 25, Batiste wears his impressive pedigrees lightly, if at all. Long before Juilliard, when he was nine, he played congas in the Batiste Brothers Band, a New Orleans funk group in the style of the Nevilles. His father, Michael, was the group's bassist. By 12, Jonathan had taken up piano. At the Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong Summer Jazz Camp, a starting point for many notable players, his friends included Troy ("Trombone Shorty") Andrews. At NOCCA, the two got their first whiff of something like a Moldy Fig. "They didn't really talk about Louis Armstrong there, or about traditional repertoire," Trombone Shorty once told me. "They were like, 'Man that's not really swinging.'"
"We didn't pay attention to what was called 'modern' and what wasn't," Batiste says. "We were each searching for a sound that broke stereotypes but somehow stayed true to our roots. We wanted to communicate." By the time Batiste reached Juilliard, he'd toured widely and released a promising CD. Since moving to New York, he has earned distinction as both bandleader and sideman. He's in the powerhouse band on singer Cassandra Wilson's 2010 album Silver Pony (Blue Note).
Batiste showed up at Juilliard already hooked on the melodica, which is both a mouth-blown reed instrument and a keyboard. (He calls it a "harmonaboard.") "I must have played it 12 hours a day," he says, "up and down the halls." Some see the instrument as a toy, especially the Juilliard administrators who expressed dismay. But it appealed to the like-minded classmates who joined Batiste in Stay Human.
Still, even these musicians had to be persuaded to take to the subway, Batiste says. "The whole idea grew out of late-night conversations we'd have at the West Side Diner about why this venue or that didn't seem right for us. And about how to connect with people."
The band gets it now. "You get on a train, and you see people who are afraid or sad," Saylor says. "And then you start to play, and there's this spiritual thing. Their whole countenance changes, and you can see it, you can sense it."
Batiste's Stay Human Band will headline the 'Jazz Is: Now!' series every Wednesday night in January at the National Jazz Museum, where the pianist serves as Artistic Adviser. Track them underground via Twitter @stayhumanband.