Most music and pop culture fanatics will recognize Jon Batiste as the charismatic band leader alongside Stephen Colbert on The Late Show. The thirty-year old pianist is no stranger to showbiz however. The Louisiana native and Juilliard alum has built a following over the last ten years by wowing audiences with his one of a kind show with his band, Stay Human.
Always one to push the blends of jazz, classical, R&B, and pop further into the musical stratosphere, Batiste shared his own interpretation of holiday music recently, releasing his first Christmas album back in November with Christmas With Jon Batiste. The twelve track album features the bandleader performing some of his own personal favorite holiday tunes as well as adding in a few new originals. The album is available to buy or stream exclusively on Amazon.
AXS caught up with Batiste Wednesday morning to talk about how he ended up picking which holiday favorites to throw onto the album, how to buy a holiday gift for an aspiring musician, and if any of his Christmas tunes will end up being performed on an upcoming episode of The Late Show.
AXS: How’s your holiday season treating you so far?
JB: Going good, I’m just getting ready to finish working this week and then I can delve into it ya know? We’ve still got a few more shows to tape.
AXS: What was the musical game plan when you began recording Christmas With Jon Batiste to make sure it could stand on its own as an album and not just get lost in the crowd of other holiday albums?
JB: I wanted it to be authentic and genuine in representing how I feel during the holiday season. The first things that came to mind were friends and family gathering together, and I was able to have a lot of my friends on the album. Some of them even contributed to it for free and in their spare time. I think that feeling will always cut through, when something is real. We made this album in about a week or less, and we tried to really focus on creating that feeling that I outlined in the beginning of the project, which is how I feel around the holidays with my friends and family. It’s the spirit heard all throughout the record.
AXS: How did you decide on the track listing for the songs that ended up on the album, and were there any holiday songs that didn’t make the cut?
JB: I knew that I wanted to make some remixes of very, very old holiday songs. I mean the older ones, not really the contemporary holiday songs, but some of the songs that are almost like folk music. Those are the ones which have such great melodies. You think of the main melody to “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” and the melody on that song could be put into any different context. So I decided to take songs like that and remake them almost as if I were composing a new songs. I also wanted to compose a few new songs myself.
AXS: Yeah even the original songs work out really well, especially “Endless Love ft. Aloe Blacc.” Is that a song you’ve had sitting around in your back pocket for a while or did you write it specifically for this holiday album?
JB: Well with “Endless Love,” Aloe Blacc and I have worked together and done tons of songs with each other and for other artists as well over the last five years or so, and we have great chemistry. We were recording this album in L.A., and I woke up one morning with the melody you hear the piano playing. It was just in my head when I woke up so I sang it into a voice memo. I felt like I needed to get a feature [artist] to go along with it. I didn’t know who it would be, but I called Aloe on the day we were in the studio, and I ended up playing him the voice memo when he came by later on we wrote, performed, and recorded the rest of the song in the same night that he came by. All in one night.
AXS: Well that worked out pretty well.
JB: Oh yeah. I mean when you’ve got such great chemistry with someone from working with them for so long, I knew I could just call him and it would turn out to be really cool since we’ve done this together so many times before.
AXS: The instrumentation really stands out on this album and sounds fantastic. For a holiday song to really glisten do you think the music comes first and the lyrics/singing is just added gravy considering the people who listen to holiday music typically just sing the lyrics out loud themselves?
JB: I feel like lyrics are always going to be important just because they are what stand out to a lot of people when they’re listening to songs. Most people don’t play an instrument, but they can sing along to the lyrics. So I always have the lyrics in mind, even with instrumental pieces, but the beauty with instrumentals is you have a little more freedom to take the arrangement to different place since you’re not worrying about singing the lyrics, which could hinder some of the arrangement possibilities. We had fun with a lot of the instrumentals on the album because people know the lyrics to the holiday songs and are going to be humming them in their heads. That gave us more freedom since we didn’t need to get a singer for those pieces.
AXS: You’re such a lively entertainer and your band is always so charismatic and fun to watch. Would you ever want to do a live holiday album to really capture the energy and lively spirit you guys have to go along with the spirit of the holidays?
JB: Yeah I think so! I think maybe in a few more years I’d be into doing a live holiday album. I think this album would actually be cool to do live with the string orchestra and choir that I have on there. Imagine that live, it’d be amazing.
AXS: Have you had a chance to throw some of these covers into the mix during performances on The Late Show?
JB: Yeah we’ve done a few. In fact we’re gonna do a performance medley with a choir of a few of the songs on the Friday show later this week.
AXS: Do you have any advice for those looking to buy a gift for an aspiring musician for the holidays?
JB: I think if you get young aspiring musicians an instrument, whatever it may be, make sure it’s something that’s mobile and that they can take it with them. You just want to experiment with sounds wherever you are like with a tambourine, toy guitar, or maybe a harmonaboard like the instrument that I play on stage. It depends on the age. Now if we’re talking about a younger teen, then I would just ask them. At that point they probably have a good idea of what instrument they’re interested in.