For his new Christmas album, Jon Batiste, keyboardist, singer and bandleader of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, has created a festive, quirkily entertaining collection of holiday songs. Working with his band, Stay Human and a half-dozen guest artists, Batiste finds the sweet spot between jazz, pop, r&b and New Orleans funk. He sings standards like “Winter Wonderland” and “White Christmas” with affection, his vocals paired with inspired, unpredictable arrangements that slip in unexpected harmonic substitutions.
An example of his “Where’s he going with this?” approach: On one number, he begins with a piano and bells fantasia, a whirling snow-squall of treble notes, that leads into a “countrypolitan” piano waltz version of “Silent Night” that would have done Nashville icon Floyd Cramer proud, accented by strings, chorus and a solo by hip-hop violinist Lee England, Jr.
Christmas With Jon Batiste is exclusively distributed by Amazon Music and is included with membership in Amazon Prime. DownBeat spoke to him by phone earlier this week.
This is a very cool Christmas album. I understand that it’s been percolating in your mind for a long time.
I’ve always thought about what to do with Christmas music from an artistic perspective, how to make it my own. Just like other standards, it’s all about the arrangement. I’ve carried a lot of these arrangements in my mind for the last five or six years. I knew at some point I was going to lay it down. The opportunity arose when Amazon approached me about doing the album.
One of my favorite things on the album is your intensely funky version of “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen.”
That came about during a meeting I had with [singer] Judith Hill in Los Angeles six years ago. It was around the holiday season, and those songs were in the air. She started singing “God Rest Ye…” and doing really soulful riffs while I played piano. I started to put this kind of groove on it in the left hand, and I thought, “Wow, that would work well!” We took the song far out of its usual context, but somehow it still maintains the Christmas spirit.
What are some of your other favorite musical moments on the album?
I was really pleased with the collaboration of [vocal group] Infinity Song and my trio (bassist Phil Kuehn and drummer Joe Saylor, both also members of Stay Human) on “Hark, The Herald Angels Sing.” Infinity Song is a family singing group we met in Central Park. I feel they’re kindred spirits. Just like Stay Human plays on the subways and street corners of New York, they’re bringing music to the people. There’s an ethereal, almost celestial, feel to the track. Then there’s the trio in the middle of it playing straightahead jazz [laughs]. It’s celestial trio jazz.
I love the way the album starts with that rippling piano. I can almost see the snow falling. It invites the listener into the experience.
I love creating imagery, almost like an Impressionist painter. The first cut, “Endless Love,” was fairly spontaneous; it all happened one night in the studio. I wanted to write an original Christmas song, and I thought, well maybe I can work on it with [singer] Aloe Blacc. He’s a friend of mine, and we’ve always had great chemistry writing together.
We wrote the song, came up with the arrangement, and recorded it within the span of three to four hours. Whatever genre of music you’re in, you want to have those spontaneous moments of inspiration. The album’s filled with that. [Trumpeter] Sean Jones came in and laid down an incredible solo on “Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring.” Everybody brought their “A” game. It was evident as soon as they started playing.
We also used a huge choir on some of the tracks. [At one point] we had 28 voices in the studio control room—not even tracking yet, just listening to demos and singing them to learn their parts. I sat in the middle, just absorbing the sound. What’s more fun than that?
I like the way you integrated a traditional chorus into what are essentially jazz arrangements.
Yes, well, another good friend of mine, Jim Davis Jr., happens to be musical director at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. He directed the chorus, using members of his church choir. He’s an incredible musician and organist who understands the nuances of gospel and choral music, but also of jazz music. You can blend those elements together when you have two musicians who understand the differences, but also the nexus points, of each genre.
What Christmas music did you listen to when you were growing up that made an impression on you and influenced you?
Everybody listens to Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.” That song is a huge inspiration to anyone thinking of composing an original Christmas song—that’s where the bar is set. I love the James Brown and Ray Charles Christmas albums, and of course, Nat “King” Cole singing “The Christmas Song”—that’s a classic.
I’ve also listened a lot to Vince Guaraldi’s album A Charlie Brown Christmas. If you think about a jazz trio playing those classic songs … as far as my inspiration for this Christmas album, the Guaraldi record probably had the most impact on me. He has his voice, and I have my voice. But the idea of it—taking the jazz trio and creating these amazing arrangements of classic songs—is similar. DB