Jon Batiste, Hollywood Africans (Verve)

A homage to his musical heroes



Those who only know Jon Batiste as the gregarious leader of the band Stay Human that appears weeknights on the television show The Late Show with Stephen Colbert will experience different sides of the talented pianist, vocalist and composer on his new release Hollywood Africans. For one, on most of the album he’s at the piano alone or with his voice as his only accompaniment.

The lively “Kenner Boogie,” which is named for his hometown of Kenner, Louisiana, stands as a good choice to kick off the album. It really shows off Batiste’s virtuosity and often uniquely quirky take on rhythm and space. By the end, he goes wild, his right hand flying across the keys while his left maintains that boogie-woogie bottom. Batiste’s sense of humor, which is evident on TV, comes in to close out the song.

The quietude of many of the tunes, including covers of “What a Wonderful World” and “The Very Thought of You,” allows one to really appreciate the richness of Batiste’s voice. While beautifully presented, a few remakes like “St. James Infirmary” and “Smile” seem somewhat superfluous.

The highlights of the album come from Batiste’s pen, including the Latin-tinged “Nocturne No. 1 in D Minor,” on which a taste of percussion is added. He and the piano are joined by a choir and an organ on the soulful, old-school style ballad “Is It Over.” The tune speaks of the New Orleans church where the album, produced by the noted T Bone Burnett, was recorded.

There is further orchestration on the strong closer, “Don’t Stop,” that Batiste co-wrote with prolific Steve McEwan. At first the piano suggests a classical melody that is emphasized by the string section. The song builds in intensity with the lyrics transporting it to today.

The versatile Jon Batiste turns boogie-woogie piano man and soul singer on Hollywood Africans and that works.