At the age of 26, Jon Batiste is only starting to show his potential to shape the development of popular music for generations to come. A true connoisseur of musical communication and tradition, Batiste is at his finest up close and personal whether he’s sharing his knowledge at the Jazz Museum in Harlem or starting a love riot in the streets of the Lower East Side. Today we discuss the development of his new genre of music entitled “social music” and his subsequent album of the same title with his Stay Human band that will drop on 10/15/13. 

Social Music

Photo credit: Peter Lueders

When did the first seeds of Social Music begin to develop?

The first idea to put together the Social Music record come from the process of organically developing the sound of Stay Human—and we did that through live performances and other recording sessions. So really it’s been a two-and-a-half-year process.

You’ve been making music with these specific musicians in Stay Human (Eddie Barbash, Ibanda Ruhumbika, and Joe Saylor) for a very long time; what makes you continue to work with them?

They all communicate through their instruments and that’s their chief attribute.

You have a nice mix of originals and covers on the record. What went into putting together the actual compositions and arrangements?

As a jazz musician by trade and as a New Orleans musician by heritage, and just as a student of music coming up in the era of the iPod and the Internet where everything is more connected than it’s ever been, there’s this true spirit of genuine eclecticism. It’s genuine in the sense that when people are listening to their iPod for instance, they are genre hopping whether they know it consciously or not. They’re going from listening to maybe a jazz track or a rock and roll track to maybe a Bach tune that they particularly enjoy. There’s so much access to everything at every moment. That’s transferred to music and as an artist I feel that the people as well as the performers have been influenced by that—specifically those from my generation and younger.

So the music on the album is reflective of that spirit. It’s a montage of musical traditions.

What do you think makes music inherently social?

Well I’ll tell you a story. When Stay Human first got together in this ensemble, we would play for free in the subways just to immerse ourselves into the social consciousness of New York City. When you go into a subway car for instance, there are people who would never converse or connect with each other outside of that experience of having to travel together and be two inches away from each other. It was a huge lesson for us and it also informed the style of music that we play. Social music is a genre. The reason that I named the album “social music” was to also designate what it is that Stay Human plays as a style of music. It’s about the intent of the music and that intent is that we want people to come together. We want people who are from different backgrounds and different places to come together through this live music experience.

Do you have a favorite experience of performing in a non-traditional setting?

Absolutely! In the Lower East Side we’ve caused a lot of ruckus playing in Katz’s Deli or paying out in Long Island at the beach. We always call these things Love Riots. It’s a riot, but it’s not negative. When we play it’s on a high level musically of course, but the impact that it has on people is almost ritualistic. It brings people together like a community. It represents the vibe of what we want our performance to be.

The last time that happened in the Lower East Side, there were cops that had to come on horseback because everybody had gathered in the middle of the street—it was about 300 people. We played for about an hour before the cops had to come in their big trucks and scatter everybody. It was surely a love riot though.

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You spread music in a lot of different types of ways and in different settings. What do you find to be the most engaging medium for people to experience music?

Live.

You also have a lot of New Orleans tradition in you. If you had to describe New Orleans to someone, what would you say to them?

New Orleans is the soul of America. It’s a folkloric culture that still exists in a modern age.

With this social music, does it change how you play if you have an audience in front of you as opposed to just being in the studio with the band?

Well social music is all about coming up with a musical concept as all artists do, which is a montage of all of these musical traditions. But it’s not just an eclectic blend; it’s our blend and our recipe. So the concept of bringing all of these musical genres and traditions into this blend is to bring as many people into the fold as we can. There’s a spirit of inclusiveness. If you don’t like jazz but you like rock or whatever there will still be something in it for you. The live performance is the magnifier of that sentiment. So when we’re onstage and we’re performing for people, this concept is being documented live through the experience. Whereas when we’re in the studio, we’re just documenting the concept and the philosophy of the music, but it’s not in action. When we’re playing for people, it’s in action. There’s an exchange that makes it that much more palpable.

On the other side of things, what’s happening at the Jazz Museum in Harlem?

There’s always the Jazz is NOW! program that is really awesome. We’ve had guests come to that like Questlove and Lenny Kravitz. Anyone who has been to that understands or has experienced the essence and vibe of what the museum is going to become in the future. That’s the magnifying glass to look through. That program is our direction.

What other projects do you have in the works these days?

I’m working on a duo album right now with Chad Smith, the drummer from the Red Hot Chili Peppers. And there’s actually a special guest on it—Ghostface Killah is coming into the studio to rap over it.

Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)

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Social Music drops on 10/15/13—Pre-Order it now!

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