When this live album was recorded at New York’s Frederick P. Rose Hall in 2013, Jon Batiste was a respected young pianist from New Orleans. Four years later, he’s that and the leader of a late-night talk-show band on a major network. His name recognition may have gone up, but it’s doubtful you’ll find him playing music like this—a stately set of nine compositions by John Lewis, with support from the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, in typically polished form—on Colbert too often.
Lewis and his Modern Jazz Quartet’s unique mix of rootsy blues and classical ambition is well suited to the JLCO’s repertory approach. All the same, the best moments here are the simplest. The opening “2 Degrees East, 3 Degrees West” keeps its early focus on Victor Goines’ expansive clarinet and Doug Wamble’s guitar, which sounds like it came straight from the swamp even before he applies a bottleneck slide. Batiste follows with a solo that zeroes in at first on a few short phrases, then a few notes, and then at last one note repeated over and over—a miniature clinic in the application of dynamics and the delicacy of touch.
Taking central position here are “La Cantatrice,” “Piazza Navona,” “Pulcinella” and “Spanish Steps,” from the MJQ’s 1962 suite The Comedy. One senses a case is being made for this as a major work, and the effort isn’t entirely successful; although the main theme of “Pulcinella” has an appealing spookiness, these pieces are just too all-over-the-place, with different styles, time signatures and tempos running into each other in herky-jerky fashion. “Delaunay’s Dilemma” is more satisfying, as Ted Nash’s alto saxophone slyly traces the outer fringes of the harmony. And Batiste’s unaccompanied take on “Django” is another standout, dizzying in its Rachmaninoff-ian romanticism.