What does one do to appear after winning five awards at the 64th Grammy Awards (including Album of the Year for “We Are”), an Oscar for Best Original Score (for co-authoring Disney-Pixar’s “Soul”) and leaving the band leader? Musical Did He Annoy Me On One Of The Top Rated Talk Shows (“The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”)? If you’re a versatile pianist and megawatt character John Baptiste, you write a symphony – and “American Symphony” is no less, its title raising the stakes for the greatness of the piece that premiered at Carnegie Hall on Thursday night.
“If the symphony orchestra were invented in the twenty-first century, what music would they play?” asked Batiste in an interview with “CBS Mornings” earlier this year (when the date of “American Symphony” was May 2022, before the pianist contracted COVID and postponed his debut). “Who would be in the orchestra and what would that look like, how would you feel?”
What it would look like was answered by a squad of 63, as well as Batiste, a vision in a crisp blue velvet suit who cut through the hall corridors for him to enter. He proceeded to spend the next ninety minutes not only playing the piano but chasing the stage in search of giant Moogs to knock, drums to pound and space to dance, and generally taking part in running the night’s routines as if he was pouring gas on a fire to stir something up. Incendiary and brutal…but not without precedent.
From Ornett Coleman’s “Sky America” and Duke Ellington’s “Blood on the Fields” orchestra by Wynton Marsalis to everything symphonic composer Aaron Copeland has ever written, creating a whirlwind of uniquely American music that has influenced her. Its historical divisions and union joys have long been part of the grandiose canon of jazz from classical to jazz.
with Baptiste’s “American Symphony” (inspired by the above findings to the ears of the reviewer, along with Bernard Herrmann’s cinematic themes of “North by Northwest” and Cape Fear, “200 Motels” by Frank Zappa, Max Roach and “Oscar Brown’s We Insist!” and Stevie Wonder’s “Innervisions,” the composer and musician simply sweetened the crucible without ignoring the sour flavors.
Divided into four movements—“capitalism,” “integrity,” “globalization,” and “majesty”—Baptiste’s contemporary orchestral work is, in his words, intended to “integrate the essential elements of the American democratic system as philosophical frameworks.” This intent (and intensity) is alive in every note of his score, just as are the solos of many of his players. (One would only wish that every member of a 21st century orchestra had performed as there were so many stellar solos or duets performed alongside their conductor.)
Using unique Native American and immigrant sounds to showcase diversity and inclusion, Batiste Symphony plays its blend of cool jazz, classical, Latin communicative, country, noise, funk, folklore, hip-hop, opera, gospel, Dixieland and Jamaican, leading and world-class R&B with Every uninterrupted blast of sound, whether subtle, loud, or resounding.
There was a raw nervous extrapolation of the songs “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “We Shall Overcome” into the symphony’s mix, both defining songs in the history of the Black Experience.
It was not uncommon in Batiste’s “American Symphony” to see sirens blaring over burgeoning string sections or street samples and glitch-jumping scratches disintegrating over fresh piano pieces.
If you weren’t busy looking for a country-swinging violinist competing with the silent trumpeter screaming in the crowd on stage, you’d be playing the theremin spot. Or raise your neck to see who among the 63 participants was carrying the steel drums, the koto, or the banjo. When there were no drummers and Native American instrumentalists crashing into a Brazilian percussion section to watch, there were stunning opera singers sobbing silently while a white bassoon and a black violinist squabbled in an aggressive song. On one occasion, there was a tape of children chanting the devotional prayer under the roof. In another moment, a family of black folk singers was playing and singing in eerie emotional harmony.
permissive? Probably. inaccurate? sometimes. But why not? Batiste’s best works, such as the racy “We”, feature the kitchen sinks style in all at once for the composition, music, and family atmosphere of Louisiana, so there’s no reason, or need, to simplify it more with a symphony than if it were an composition album.
From several honking, an elephant-like trombone bray and a percussion chime, to Battisti’s quick solo release of “The Star-Spangled Banner,” hockey, flashy, cheerful and all, it was hard to know exactly what stopped the movement when, or what individual feelings were are photographed. At its best, it felt as though Batiste gave the soloists room to ramble on improvisationally, giving the symphony a funky free-jazz feel to go with its often-dancing groove.
“Why are you all sitting down if we’re playing this kind of music,” Baptiste asked of the wealthy audience, dancing in their seats until he noticed him. From there, Batiste—a hot dog if he ever existed and was proud of him—began to prose loud and soulful as Hammond’s member rolled beneath him. “We thought that wouldn’t happen,” he said. In the end, “Nothing can stop the power of God.”
The most unstoppable elements, the unforgettable music of an evening filled with vibrant tunes, the sparkling percussion beats and angular arrangements, reeds and brass dedicated to everything that makes America great, hateful, and great again, came from Batisti. When he wasn’t singing, screaming and screaming silently, winding his vocals through his symphonic beatdown lanes and uplifting rhythms, Baptiste was doing what he does best: playing the piano with fury and divine grace. There were elegant, serene flows of sophisticated spirit leaning on the hot-wire piano scrolls in Orleans. There were elegant pastoral touches, a light-hearted Louisiana saloon, grumpy countryside, and jazz. There were moments in his playing, on “symphony” themes, where you can sense disgust and anger at the way his country has gone astray. There was resignation too, and hope for the future with his swift ascending chords and heavenly melodies of melody. He was there telling the story of sparkling America – a furious story. Happy. One my soul minded.
Lots of great musicians and singers, working alone and performing alongside their brothers and sisters, nevertheless never forget who this “American Symphony” was and which won all the Grammy Awards for telling funky and sentimental style. It wasn’t just the story of America, its collage-like charms and vices. This was also Battisti’s story, and he did a handsome orchestra for the first time for that story at Carnegie Hall in a really bright hour.