As the bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Jon Batiste is able to show off some of his impressive musical stylings, but those who only know the skilled pianist from his television work have no idea what he’s capable of unleashing. The Juilliard-trained performer spends his major label debut walking his listeners through the very history of recorded music, channeling his ancestral heroes and proving himself to be a master curator of the arts. With an eye-catching title that’s derived from neo-expressionism artist Jean-Michel Basquiat’s portrait of Black success and marginalization in the American entertainment industry, Hollywood Africans is a visceral reminder of the power of music as both a means of overcoming adversity and as a healing balm on the path to recovery.
The album opens with “Kenner Boogie,” a funky, jazzed up ode to his Louisiana hometown in the spirit of Fats Domino and Little Richard, deceptively intricate as it starts off by establishing a simple set of musical rules and then proceeds to break each of them one by one. It is from here that Batiste pays homage to a wide array of idols, first fluttering through modern reimaginings of classic American standards. His enchanting rendition of “The Very Thought of You” would even make Ray Noble proud and his stripped down version of “What a Wonderful World” pays its respects to the original while also placing such a distinctive fingerprint on the track that the listener almost forgets that they’ve heard the song serve as the soundtrack to countless coffee advertisements.
Much like Thelonious Monk before him, Jon Batiste finds musical notation to be the ultimate form of punctuation, constructing emotive call and response passages using only his instrument and an enthusiastic curiosity for the ins and outs of the craft. Always focusing on the forward momentum of a piece, his rumbling chords can make the piano weep just as smoothly as they can make it dance. As such, a lively, eerie waltz like ”Nocturne No. 1 in D Minor” can translate percussive rhythms into piano fingerings and a celestial, gospel number like ”Saint James Infirmary Blues” can serve as a spirited callback to the glory days of the Jazz Age. In these dynamic moments, we sense Batiste’s religious devotion to the likes of both Johann Sebastian Bach and James Brown in the emotional urgency of his deliberately sparse arrangements.
The decadent record invites the untrained ear into Jon Batiste’s mammoth musical education with titles like “Chopinesque,” in which he riffs on the renowned Polish composer, flourishing some of the most recognizable piano lines of all time amongst a hearty, soulful skeleton. But the album’s allusions aren’t always quite so high brow (you could imagine the childlike, sing-song track “Mr. Buddy” on a Randy Newman album). Many of Batiste’s progression cues feel inherently cinematic, like the tender interlude ”Smile” or the textured, ever-evolving mood piece ”Green Hill Zone” (which, yes, is a cover of the tune from the first Sonic the Hedgehog game) which land like the precursor to the film he’ll eventually score.
Of course, this musical history lesson wouldn’t be complete with a hearty tribute to Ray Charles, which in the case of Jon Batiste are album standout tracks. Lovelorn, expressive ballads like “Don’t Stop” and “Is It Over” find him reaching out for confirmation of the uncomfortable notion he already knows in his heart to be true. With a casual turn of phrase (”I want you in the worst way / Even on your worst day”), Batiste sells every ounce of wistful yearning through his remarkably stirring songcraft.
Recorded in New Orleans with legendary producer T Bone Burnett, Hollywood Africans surrounds Jon Batiste with the roaring spirits of home, as the incomparable energy of a vast city whose storied history surrounds the present allows for a fascinating celebration of American music. The prodigious album becomes an expert meditation specifically tailored for these divisive times, focusing on the connective tissue between all people through the lens of music. Batiste truly comes alive on this recording, a sublime blend of extreme knowledgeability and immense raw talent.