Jon Batiste, the bandleader for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, took centerstage on the program Wednesday night, when he performed a couple of songs from his upcoming Hollywood Africans LP, out Friday. For the soulful ballad “Don’t Stop,” the first song he performed, he played a moody line on a grand piano and sang tenderly about being in love. The room was darkened to match the mood of the song, and he also got a little accompaniment from an orchestral ensemble.
Before the performance, he explains how Hollywood Africans – which borrows its title from a painting by Jean-Michel Basquiat, an artist whose story he’s bringing to Broadway – came to be. “T. Bone Burnett and I produced it together in a church that was converted into a studio in my hometown in New Orleans,” he said. “The piano was in the middle of the room and we cut the lights out. [It was] completely pitch black for about three days, and I just tried to channel the heroes, you know, Nina Simone, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, through the instrument and become vulnerable in the room and let my truth come out of the instrument.”
Batiste also shared what he wanted people to get from the album. “These days, stuff is very, very tough to deal with,” he said. “And I want people to have a meditation that doesn’t result in despair but in hope.”
For his second performance, a web exclusive, he went straight to the work of one of his heroes: Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” He chose the song, he said, so that people could “meditate on the beauty and grandeur of the celestial ball in the middle of space that we live on, called Earth; it’s a beautiful place to be.”
The performance, which again was at a grand piano in the middle of a darkened room, was contemplative and measured – a bit of a departure from Armstrong’s schmaltzy original but it was heartfelt and moving in a different way. He apparently performed it with no studio audience, because at the end he stops and leaves it hanging, seemingly asking listeners to contemplate the lyrics.