There should ostensibly be no room for an average-sized group – let alone a 10-piece New Orleans brass band – in the bar of New York's NoMad Hotel. There is no stage, no house lights and half of the instruments had to be shoehorned in between the bar and a railing four feet away.
But on Wednesday night, pianist-bandleader Jon Batiste, currently prepping for his new day job as bandleader for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, and his band Stay Human showed that space constraints were more advantage than impediment, freely moving within the audience and utilizing every square inch of the space. At multiple points, the rhythm section, joined tonight by Dave Matthews Band saxophonist Jeff Coffin, performed on the main floor while the horn players performed on stairs and on the bar's second floor.
This stage-less performance heavy on crowd interaction is not new for Batiste – the band frequently performs spontaneous concerts they call "love riots" through city streets. But for the second show of their week-long residency, the economical space blurred the line between fan and musician, with the band favoring second line parades over traditional staging. While Batiste is another world musically and NoMad is a luxury hotel, Wednesday's performance felt more like a DIY show than a serious jazz performance.
The show was Batiste's second of a week-long NoMad residency presented by Chase that will find the musician playing various shows at the hotel's rooftop and main bar. In addition to a special "social storytelling" show for teenagers and Sunday brunch show, Batiste will end his residency on Monday, June 29th with a Love Riot at Michelin three-star restaurant Eleven Madison Park.
It's the perfect medium for Stay Human's music, an ebullient mix of Afro-Cuban jazz, Seventies funk and revamped standards. The 11-song set, equally split between original material and covers, spanned two hours, with the band tossing in instrumental versions of classics like Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up" in between originals. The group's high-energy, horn-heavy sound wouldn't be out of place on a Daptone Records compilation. But where backing bands like the Dap-Kings favor tight, punchy productions, Stay Human indulge their jazz-nerd roots, stretching each song out, deconstructing them and adding in minutes-long musical asides in a way more akin to a jam band.
The J.B.'s and Maceo Parker may be the most obvious inspiration, but they're hardly the only ones. The band took on Brazilian composer Zequinha de Abreu's "Tico-Tico no Fubá," channeled Ethio-jazz pioneer Mulatu Astatke and, perhaps most miraculously, found a way to make "If You're Happy and You Know It" sound cool.
Batiste is a natural and charismatic frontman who should adjust easily to his television bandleader role. His ability to manipulate a crowd is masterful, jumping on the bar for a melodica-centered instrumental cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean" before silencing the audience with a quiet, plaintive version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
It remains to be seen if Batiste can translate his riveting live show to the rigid environment of network television. "I think that something that [Colbert and I] would never have come up with will happen once we're in the room and brainstorming together," Batiste told Gothamist last week. As Wednesday's show exemplified, though, Batiste is most comfortable channeling the unpredictable and spontaneous.