This perfectly titled album is a mash-up of time and tempo, jazz and pop, rhythm and blues, modern tunes and warhorses. Sparked by Jon Batiste’s New Orleans-steeped piano, jaunty vocals and melodica (he calls it a “harmonaboard”), Social Music is all about engagement.
While Social Music is thoughtful, it is not cerebral. It’s a good party disc that incorporates all kinds of sonics, from the thunder accompanying Batiste’s “Db Movement I” to the Jelly Roll Morton speech that ushers in Batiste’s update of “Maple Leaf Rag.” Even John Hicks’ “Naima’s Love Song,” though less flowery than the beautiful original, is buoyant, upbeat, moving. The slower tunes, like “Lonely Cry in Manhattan” and “San Spirito,” are sultry and worked, allowing the unusually voiced Stay Human to stretch. But the band shines brightest on the more pop-oriented offerings, particularly vocal tracks like the joyous “Express Yourself (Say Yes)” and the funny, funky “It’s Alright (Why You Gotta).” Along those entertaining lines, Batiste, alto saxophonist Eddie Barbash, tubaist Ibanda Ruhumbika and drummer Joe Saylor dig into “St. James Infirmary,” transforming a dirge into a piledriver. It’s refreshing to hear such a young group turn a chestnut fresh, channeling Screamin’ Jay Hawkins in the process. It also underlines the group’s interest in accessibility.
That approach also figures into Batiste’s impossibly florid and exuberant take on “The Star Spangled Banner,” a bravura foray that ices the first full disc by this talented group with flair and flourish. Music this eclectic and user-friendly could make jazz popular again. Batiste, at 26, can’t remember such days. But he’s doing his best to bring them back.