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Jon Batiste’s Stay Human Band at the High Point Theatre

by Ryan Snyder

Breaking down the walls between funk and rock and jazz is the stated artistic goal of young New York City piano virtuoso Jon Batiste’s Stay Human Band, but in the live setting, that idea extends breaking down the fourth wall as well. Saturday night at the High Point Theatre, Batiste and his talented cohorts frequently found them selves mimicking their impromptu Brooklyn subway shows on the theater’s house-facing wings, or invoking Batiste’s New Orleans heritage by marching straight out into the weather-diminished audience. Outside, the chill of the area’s worst winter storm in years lingered, but inside, Batiste’s warmth was ineffaceable.

Stay Human’s performance in High Point came as a part of the unit’s first national tour and on the heels of its debut album, Social Music, an album that cleanly parses Batiste’s highbrowed classical and jazz training from his hereditary predilection for raw showmanship (he’s the scion of a family that is essentially synonymous with it in New Orleans).

The idea behind it is to stoke conversations and offer accessibility. On stage, he tends to blur those lines.

He’s still the kind of unabashed entertainer that undoubtedly shares DNA with Uncle Lionel Batiste, but even when he chooses to veer far from his genetic baseline, he still never gets too abstruse in his presentation.

With bassist Barry Stephenson, drummer Joe Saylor, tuba player/percussion Ibanda Ruhumbika, and saxophonist Eddie Barbash (a UNC School of the Arts alum who might be familiar via his Justin Poindexter collaboration, the Amigos Band) all decked out in suit and tie, Batiste swung effortlessly from Social Music’s carnivalesque “Let God Lead” to a faithful look at Ray Charles’ interpretation of Sammy Fain’s standard “I’ll Be Seeing You.” The latter was foreshadowed in a video posted by Batiste early Saturday when it was playing in the background on the band’s car ride from Durham, and it was also the most buttoned down moment in a performance that was anxious to loosen its tie just a little.

That moment came toward the end of their version of the century-old folksong “St. James Infirmary,” a dirge as malleable as just about any ever written. Kermit Ruffins sings it like a drunken eulogy, like he’s pouring out liquor on an anonymous grave. My Morning Jacket’s Jim James presents it like a fireside ghost story in the rare occasion he gets to sing it with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. Batiste’s method of reading wasn’t apparent at first, but its calamitous finale — with Barbash shrieking madly on his tenor sax — passed the litmus test for metal when all the distortion and feedback is stripped away.

When the band really decided it was time to let loose, there was no need for deconstruction. Stephenson closed the first set with a bass solo that was heavy on the envelope filter, teasing George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog” and setting the tone for the band’s return in hoodies and jeans, in which they finished their set in the middle of the audience.

In other words, social music. !

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