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Jon Batiste: Anatomy of Angels

Chris May By

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As the bandleader and musical director on CBS TV's The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, pianist Jon Batiste will be known to many AAJ readers in the US. Here on the other side of the pond his name rings fewer bells. So before discussing Batiste's piano trio + octet album Anatomy of Angels, some background for European readers.

Batiste comes from a distinguished line of New Orleans musicians which includes the late Harold Battiste, whose accomplishments included composing and arranging for Sam Cooke, Lee Dorsey and Dr John. Still in his early thirties, Batiste moved from Louisiana to New York in his late teens to study at Juilliard, and has remained based in the city. On The Late Show, he leads his own mid-sized band, Stay Human, with whom he began recording in 2011. He has also recorded with Wynton Marsalis and Bill Laswell (separately, for there would be blood on the floor if those two were ever involved in the same project). As an actor, he has appeared in three seasons of the HBO series Treme and in Spike Lee's 2012 movie, Red Hook Summer, and has been cast in marketing campaigns for leading finance, automobile and fashion brands.

Anatomy of Angels, which was recorded live with Stay Human at New York's Village Vanguard, is Batiste's second album for Verve, following 2018's sprawling, automusicographical Hollywood Africans, produced by T Bone Burnett. The new album is more concise than its predecessor, which was released as a three-sided LP among other formats, and clocks in at just under 36 minutes. It comprises three piano-trio tracks (two Batiste originals plus Ray Noble's evergeen "The Very Thought of You")—each lasting around five minutes—and two longer, octet features (Thelonious Monk's "Round Midnight" and Batiste's "Anatomy of Angels").

Batiste's style is multi-faceted, reflecting his Louisiana heritage but also touching on the atonality of Cecil Taylor, the dissonance of Monk and late period John Coltrane, the easy melodicism of Esbjorn Svensson and the gospel-like positivity of Abdullah Ibrahim. At its most accessible, as on the bluesy original "Dusk Train to Dohar," it has moments of bracing astringency. At its prettiest, as on "The Very Thought of You," it is Stan Getzian in its lyricism. At its most challenging, as on "Anatomy of Angels" and the high-decibel reading of "Round Midnight" (a version appropriate to the city that never sleeps), it remains listener friendly, something Batiste achieves through well-crafted arrangements which move the narratives along with short chapters and plenty of dramatic action. At times he comes rather too close to being all things to all persons, but by and large he succeeds—Anatomy of Angels is a page-turner.

The album was recorded during a six-night residency at the Vanguard in autumn 2018. If the five tracks are anything to go by, a much larger body of high-grade music must have been performed during the week. So the brevity of the disc is intriguing. Perhaps it is meant to resonate with playing times back in the LP era. Whatever. It certainly leaves one listener wanting to hear more.

Track Listing: Creative; Dusk Train to Dohar; The Very Thought of You; Round Midnight; Anatomy of Angels.

Personnel: Jon Batiste: piano, vocals (3); Patrick Bartley: alto saxophone: (4, 5); Tivon Pennicott: tenor saxophone (4, 5); Giveton Gelin: trumpet (4, 5); Jon Lampley: trumpet (4); Phil Kuehn: bass; Joe Saylor: drums; Louis Cato: percussion (5).

Title: Anatomy of Angels | Year Released: 2019 | Record Label: Verve international

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