‘That’s like Coltrane’: Jon Batiste sees jazz and genius in video game soundtracks
If jazz musician and Stephen Colbert sidekick Jon Batiste were one of the video game characters he so adores, it would have to be Sonic the Hedgehog. Batiste just keeps moving, fast. During the course of a recent week, the enthusiastic, eclectic musician led his Stay Human band for a TV audience of millions on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.” Then he practiced for the Global Citizen Festival where he and the band played with French Montana, Carole King and Kelly Clarkson. Then Batiste moved on to Cafe Carlyle, where he had a week-long jazz residency.
“I played with 12 different bands that week, a different band at Cafe Carlyle every two nights,” said Batiste, 32. “That’s like 3 hours of sleep or less each night. You gotta soak your arm in Epsom salt because you’re playing all day.”
His recent “Hollywood Africans” album hit No. 1 on the Billboard jazz charts and his “Anatomy of Angels — Live at the Village Vanguard,” was so popular, he’s preparing a second live recording called “Chronology of a Dream,” out November 1.
But amid the whirlwind, Batiste does make time to relax, often with video games, a medium that shaped both his childhood and career.
Playing games is not just a distraction for Batiste. Games are of prime importance in his life, motivating him since his youth. His dressing room at “The Late Show” is packed with keyboards, tailored suits and matching watches, but also a Nintendo Classic Edition, an original PlayStation, an original Super Nintendo (with cartridges), a PlayStation 4 and a number of fighting games, like the most recent Dragon Ball Z.
While entertaining, Batiste, who comes from a family of accomplished musicians and began playing in a band at age 8, looks at the games on another level. For him, the games’ scores and soundtracks served as early musical inspiration.
He doesn't just listen and regurgitate. Even as a child, he was fascinated by the hows and whys, the way music enhanced the game play experience and the way music cues told a story.
Before playing with artists as diverse as Prince, Roy Hargrove and Ed Sheerhan, Jon Batiste grew up in Kenner, Louisiana, in what he describes as a “normal,” “boring” suburb best known for its airport. A quiet child, he played music, indulged in martial arts, wrote books, drew anime and enjoyed video games. He and his cousin Travis “even started writing video games. So, we were nerds.” He was a prodigy driven to lead bands as well, as early as age 13 at Snug Harbor on New Orleans’s Frenchman Street.
In his 20s whether it was doing an impromptu concert (what he calls a “love riot”) for hundreds on the Lower East Side’s Ludlow Street or playing his signature melodica on Colbert, Batiste said he was always over-prepared. Maybe that has something to do with what he learned from games as well, because you just can’t go into Street Fighter, one of his favorites, and win without knowing moves — the blocks, the general rhythm of the match, all the ins and outs.
He uses his knowledge of games’ music to this day. For instance, he’s now writing the music, lyrics and part of the story for a musical by Jean-Michel Basquiat, which will premiere late next year in New York. As he creates the score, he said he’s pulling from his history with games, because “[games] subconsciously taught me about theme and development, how to create catchy themes that you want to hear over and over again. But at the same time, the theme can’t be annoying. It can’t be. After you’ve heard [an annoying] theme 100 times, you’re ready to put the game on mute.”
With Batiste on the move again, the conversation about his game-fueled musical education continued on a walk from the Ed Sullivan Theater to the Universal Music Publishing building four blocks away. He said his favorite is Square Enix’s Final Fantasy VII, and his love for the four-hour score was made apparent by his short shouts of appreciation as he recalled the music.
“There’s so much in it," he said. "Life, love, death, adventure. Ooo, when you play against Sephiroth at the end! The graphics! The remake comes out next March. They better not screw it up!”
He mentioned that he’s looking forward to Hideo Kojima’s forthcoming PlayStation 4 game, “Death Stranding.” “I’m not sure what it is, but it looks like it’s going to be really good.”
Inside a posh studio at the Universal Music Group on Broadway, Batiste continued the discussion while seated at a grand piano. He played 10 classic video game songs as he explained their significance to him and to music as a whole. The performance included themes from Donkey Kong Country, The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy VII and Mega Man.
“These songs are almost like Disney soundtracks,” Batiste said. “You see people light up. Stories come flooding into people’s minds when they hear these songs.”
As he played a ragtime version of a Street Fighter 2 song, he discussed the game’s diversity. “This was impressive," he said. "That game has themes for every character and every character came from a different part of the world.” He talked about the backstories of Sagat and Ryu as if they were old friends.
Seated at the piano, Batiste was in the groove. He sang game melodies with an impassioned voice, occasionally scatting, and then a Harry Belafonte-style call-and-response that filled the large room in which he played.
“Whoa!” he shouted as he stopped playing the theme from The Legend of Zelda. “The harmonic concept feels like it’s optimistic, but there’s something else happening. It’s a journey that’s happening.” He called Ocarina of Time “mythic,” then took it deeper.
“That is like Coltrane,” he said, and segued from that game’s score right into the legendary musician’s hypnotic version of “My Favorite Things.”
In doing so, Batiste wove a cross-cultural thread from the best of jazz to the best of game music. It’s not the first time he’s merged music with gaming. This past summer Batiste mentored six young musicians in his role as co-artistic director at Harlem’s National Jazz Museum. They created a video game.
Later in the UMG building performance he took his assistant’s phone and placed it inside the piano. “Don’t worry,” he reassured. “I’ve done this before.” The phone made a banging, thrashing, percussive sound while it bounced on the piano’s strings during a version of the Mega Man X title theme. “There’s punk rock here!” he said, then jumped to the drum riser nearby and banged hard on the bass drum and cymbals with his hands. “I used to be in a punk band,” he explained.
Later he appeared to astound himself as he played the Super Mario Bros. underground theme. “That’s crazy! That rhythm they had in there. That sounds like second line to me,” he said, referring to the entrancing brass band parades that constantly move through the French Quarter.
While playing the song that accompanies the first level of Super Mario Bros., he halted.
“That chord. That chord!" He laughed with sheer joy. "[Playing this game] was the first time I heard that chord. That chord wasn’t in modern music in the 90s. They didn’t have 9th chords. That’s like some Louis Armstrong.”
Within these game-based gems, Batiste hears something different and deeper than many do. Sure, there’s a tune he can riff upon and make new (like his version of “Green Hill Zone Level 1” from the 16-bit version of Sonic The Hedgehog). But it’s more. As connections to popular culture like jazz, he sees threads of fine art and that can bring together a community in reality, not just virtually on a screen or monitor. To expand upon Batiste’s “Late Show” theme, it’s a form of humanism.
“Oh, man. Oh, man. Oh, man. Game music! Gotta do an album. Got to," he said after he finished his performance. "And I want to write music for a new game.”
Despite everything on his plate, his passion — for creating, for music, for games — is keeping him hungry and sends him speeding off again. So, off he goes, just like Sonic chasing those rings.
Harold Goldberg has written for the New York Times, Playboy, Vanity Fair and is the author of "All Your Base Are Belong to Us (How 50 Years of video games Conquered Pop Culture). He’s the founder of the New York Video Game Critics Circle and New York Game Awards. Follow him on Twitter @haroldgoldberg.
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