History hangs more heavily than the damask on the walls of the opulent Music Room in the Turkish ambassador’s residence. It was in that room during the swing era that brothers Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun — the then-ambassador’s sons — hosted performances by the prewar jazz greats, a precursor to their founding of Atlantic Records. Tuesday night the room, full of business-suited bureaucrats, including at least three veteran legislators and former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff, came alive again with that vintage jazz vibe, thanks to New Orleans pianist Jonathan Batiste and his Stay Human Band.
“Vintage” is a tricky notion, as Batiste and company made clear. They concocted the dense, spicy stuff that fuels New Orleans: pounding rhythms and lively melodies, deceptively finessed and firmly steeped in gospel and the blues. But the Stay Human ensemble (alto saxophone, tuba, guitar, piano, bass and drums) defies the conventions of any era of jazz, and the players didn’t hesitate to use modern language.
That was especially true of Batiste; though he pulled blues licks and stomped out grooves with glee on “St. James Infirmary Blues” and the Spanish tango “Why You Gotta Be Like That,” he also worked in bebop harmonies and irregular syncopation (helped along by Joe Saylor’s clattering drums) on his multipart original “Creative” and a unique abstraction of the melody on Scott Joplin’s “The Entertainer.” The latter was impressive in its moves through these ideas; it featured a Phil Kuehn bass solo that evolved from ragtime bass walk to contemporary flourishes and a piano coda consisting of a long transformation of New Orleans’s rollicking “Jelly Roll” groove into irresistible funk.
The evening included one genuine masterpiece. The band’s version of Leroy Carr’s classic blues “When the Sun Goes Down” began as a four-way duel between Batiste (on melodica — a keyboarded harmonica), Saylor (on tambourine), alto saxophonist Eddie Barbash and tubaist Ibanda Ruhumbika. It then transitioned to a duet for melodica and Marvin Sewell’s ferocious bottleneck guitar before swelling into a magnificent full-band performance (with Batiste singing), then passed through moody piano atmospherics and ended on a sweet gospel echo of the theme. When the explosive applause died down, Batiste explained simply, “Now that was the blues!”
West is a freelance writer.