Jonathan Batiste, Monica Yunus and “The Stay Human Band” Seduce with their New Orleans Jazz Brand

Nélida Nassar  08.02.2013

The lights dimmed on the Zouk Mikael festival amphitheatre with all eyes riveted on the stage. The two brass sets, surrounding each side of the grand piano, were the focus of everyone attention, but nothing happened. Then a lyrical blues sound escaped from an unfamiliar instrument and broke the evening’s silence. Heads turned right and left attempting to locate its origin. Suddenly, a focused beam glowed on the lanky, dapper in a gray suit, Jonathan Batiste playing his melodica while stepping down from the back of the amphitheatre. He walked and leaped like a feline reaching the stage, but not after having kissed a spectator amidst great cheers.

This set the tone for the concert and everyone was transposed to a New Orleans bar. Batiste engaged the crowd and tried to rile them up. The cheers that greeted every prompt were obliging, enthusiastic, and maybe a little proprietary: Batiste, the orchestra’s founder and pianist wanted the evening, his first in Zouk Mikael, Lebanon – concluding a world tour – to sound like a smashing success.

The band Eddie Barbash, saxophone; Philip Kuehn, bass; Ibanda Ruhumbika, tuba and Joe Saylor, percussionist was ready to go. Batiste settled behind the piano playing the first notes with a devotional ease almost caressing the instrument with his long fingers – while the band pounded their instruments vibrantly, going from jazzy grooves to funky. If Barbash with his saxophone carried the melody, Saylor’s percussion harmonized above it and Ruhumbika’s tuba punctuated it from below holding the sound together. Rhythmically, Saylor’s tuba and Kuehn’s bass kept a steady beat while Batiste at the piano and melodica provided chord structure and harmonic support.

The band name “The Stay Human Band” is particularly fitting as it describes the group’s human touch in creating ease and relaxation for its audience while playing music, and their humanity. The day before their appearance in Zouk Mikael, they performed a free concert for the children at St Jude Cancer Centre.

Around a cup of tea at the four season’s hotel, Beirut, Batiste mentioned to me how humbling and powerful this visit has been and how a particular children’s rhyme kept humming in his ears. This charitable act is not the first as Batiste and Monica Yunes, soprano, and the other members – graduates of the Juilliard School of Music – each supports charitable organizations. Yunes is the founder of “Sing for Hope” a philanthropic association and Batiste is a traveling ambassador for Music Unites and Associate Director for the National Jazz Museum – they have teamed up on several occasions to bless the masses with their wonderful art.

Already known to the Lebanese public for having performed locally three times, Yunus appeared in an elegant powdered pink strapless gown. She is trained as a classical opera soprano and her heroes are Joan Sutherland, Mirella Freni and Placido Domingo. For this concert, she attempted a crossover jazz repertoire by taking on lyrics sung by previous seminal jazz figures Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and, more recently, Norah Jones. She intoned George and Ira Greshwin’s Embraceable You followed by Charles Fox’s Killing Me Softly. Her voice waned and waxed beautifully with vocal flexibility and clarity of tone, however at times she sounded as a nasal thin caprino vibrato.

Following Yunus’s lyrical moment, the tambourine and the tuba players resumed the music, leaving the stage and starting their marching parade. Swinging, stomping and syncopating to the beat of Oh My Baby, making more than one spectator jump up and dance.

Saint James Infirmary blues’ notes resonated throughout the amphitheatre, charismatic Batiste seemed in trance. He played masterfully with his left hand gliding over the keys with every note while from the right hand re-harmonizing the same tune insistently, all the while singing its melancholic lyrics. It was a pleasure watching where his thoughts and music led, absolutely owning his instrument. St James Infirmary had the flavor of Batiste’s hero: a Duke Ellington song. It was also representative of the band’s maturity and immense musical skills. This sorrowful tune did not last, the joyful music took over; the band’s set then moved to an incredible range of sounds beyond brass and were unafraid to mix genres: funk-bass pockets, science-fiction-sounding, key tar synthesizer and free-jazz squeals.

Yunes intoned again Nat King Cole’s Love, she gracefully proceeded with the entire band to leave the stage, joining the audience – while inciting them to dance to 1939 Louisiana state’s popular song by Jimmie Davis and Charles Mitchell You Are My Sunshine. Yunus, by slowing the tone with emotive vocals that reset the timing and rhythm, added a new dimension giving a very tender rendition.

“The Stay Human Band” continued with Henry Mancini’s unforgettable Moon River – originally from the 1961 “Breakfast at Tiffany.” From the opening melodious tunes, the music went crescendo, and at moments the band sounded so over-the-top virtuosic, it resembled progressive rock as much as it did jazz.

For their finale, Yunus and Baptiste in Georges Gershwin’s Summertime’s duet performed their seduction act, they improvised, elongated, punctuated, and stressed particularly “It’s Hot in Summertime!” Yunus fell a tad short of delivering the incredible depth of emotion the piece calls for.

“The Stay Human Band’s” improvisation and personal expression combined with African rhythms and blue notes turning blues into jazz was “beyond category.” In 1976, jazz historian Al Rose wrote a definition of New Orleans-style jazz: “Jazz is two or more musical voices improvising collectively in two-four or four-four time on any known melody and  ‘syncopating.’” Meanwhile, the Louisiana State Museum at the Old U.S. Mint gives this definition: “New Orleans jazz is a performance art based on the musical elements of syncopation, improvisation, blues scale, call-and-response, rhythm, tone color, harmony and interpretation.” Imbued by both zeitgeists, the band performed equally well distinct styles of jazz, blues, pop, rock, and their particular deconstructed brand of music.

It is also good to remember that most of jazz music started in New Orleans, it is then no surprise that Batiste whose birthplace is this southern port city and who is the third generation jazz player excels in the various music types in which he was reared. “The Stay Human Band” not only delighted and seduced its audience; it succeeded in transporting them, body and soul, into New Orleans Bourbon Quarter’s bars, Mardi Gras marching procession as well as in a Louisiana bayou. Purple, green and gold, the traditional colors chosen by Grand Duke Alexis Alexandrovitch Romanoff of Russia during a visit to New Orleans in 1872, were projected on the roman amphitheatre stage creating a beautiful counterpoint to the music. This was a memorable evening indeed, fresh and riveting from beginning to end. “The Stay Human Band” is set for great successes to be watched for.

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