Pianist/singer Jon Batiste started this spellbinding club set with a perfectly articulated, delicately poised snatch of Bach. A villainous rumble cued his band, and then it was straight into a tuba-driven, sax-wailing “St. Louis Blues”. What followed was a highly disciplined, decidedly anarchic brew, that mixed all and sundry into a wide-appeal repertoire.
Batiste was born in New Orleans and his set resonated with Crescent City references – “Summertime” was followed by “St. James Infirmary” and “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” also featured. But each tune of this long single set flew off in different directions and was spliced with unlikely partners. “St. Louis Blues” zipped from shuffle to march, was intercut with a boogie and changed tempo at will. Batiste introduced “Summertime” with a fragile tapestry of stride piano – the theme, stated ponderously by Ibanda Ruhumbika’s tuba, was achingly slow. It toughened up with rootsy sax; then there was a blues with showcase drums and the leader’s rampaging block chords.
Over the course of the evening, Batiste and his band referenced “The Three Minute Waltz”, bombastic Isaac Hayes soul – the introduction to “St. James Infirmary” – hip-hop and the abstract wash of free jazz. His solos were equally broad, blending flowing modernism with boogies, stomps and classic stride. Amazingly, it all made sense.
Partly this was thanks to the dynamics and pinpoint precision of his band’s performance. Bassist Barry Stephenson and Joseph Saylor on drums pared down each groove to its essence and made each click count. Alto saxophonist Eddie Barbash’s edgy lines had a traditional tone, while the combination of sax and tuba is so distinctive that even Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird” was a personal statement.
But the husky-voiced, melodica-doubling 25-year-old is the lead figure, and he presents his band with an insouciant Big Easy charm. Towards the end of his set, he announced that surprise guests were due, and that anything could happen. A Hawaian-shirted audience member, announced as Darren, was presented as “just being himself” – he performed headstands on the side of stage – and there was a clarinettist. But styles kept coming and the band stayed tight, even while snaking through the audience on “Killing Me Softly”. They finished by the bar, won an ovation and came back with a blast of blistering funk.