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Why the Grammys Couldnt Resist Jon Batiste / The New York Times

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The jazz pianist is an inheritor more than an innovator, but he puts the past to use in service of fun, blending genres and embodying the pleasures of his hometown, New Orleans.

The New York Times - Giovanni Russonello writes….Accepting the Grammy for album of the year on Sunday night, Jon Batiste delivered a minute-and-a-half manifesto that belied his roots in the musical culture of New Orleans.

He telegraphed his gratitude but noted some reservations: Doling out awards, he said, seemed to go against the way people make music, which he called an act of inheritance and of community. “I believe this to my core: There is no best musician, best artist, best dancer, best actor,” he said. Music is “more than entertainment for me, it’s a spiritual practice.” He noted that his grandfather and his nephews are featured on the award-winning album, “We Are.”

Batiste invited all “real artists, real musicians” to share in the award. “Let’s just keep going,” he said. “Be you.” And then he slipped back, for a moment, into the blithe affect that by now is familiar to viewers of “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert,” where Batiste’s Stay Human has been the house band since 2015. “I love ya, even if I don’t know ya!” he called, leaning into his New Orleans drawl. He tipped sideways, smiled big and said: “Goodnight! Hey!”

It served as a reminder that Batiste’s biggest model, as a musician and a public figure, is a very old one: Louis Armstrong, the first pop-music virtuoso of the recorded era, who was getting his start about 100 years ago. That mix of affability and seriousness, the deployment of humility, the insistence on values outside of an explicit political claim, the old-time Crescent City flair: All were aspects of Batiste’s acceptance speech and the “We Are” LP itself, and all are pieces of the Satchmo playbook.

So much of jazz’s virtue lies in its ability to inherit lessons from the past, but that doesn’t mean nostalgia is the only path to prominence for musicians these days. Increasingly, younger players have been finding real success by putting the ideas of classic jazz improvisers to use with new tools — whether that’s electronics, or a global palette of influences. Batiste is a gleeful genre-melder, but he is an inheritor more than he’s an innovator, and his songs don’t have the sense of adventure that pulses through so much dance-oriented, crossover jazz today. They’re more about making sure everyone has fun.

So you could say that his big night at the 64th Annual Grammy Awards — where he took home five prizes, more than any other artist — represented both an upset and a confirmation of everything you thought you knew about the Recording Academy. Batiste’s generous virtuosity and dedication to equal-opportunity uplift make him an easy darling among a voting body not exactly known for progressivism.

It’s worth noting that Silk Sonic, the duo of Bruno Mars and Anderson .Paak that took home record of the year on Sunday, also relied on a song gazing at the past: “Leave the Door Open,” a self-aware dip back into 1970s soul.

Some of the music on “We Are” pulls its acoustic-funk aesthetic from the 1960s, but other parts recall the 1990s, that pre-9/11 moment when Keb Mo’ was becoming a Grammy favorite, and Starbucks-curated albums summarizing entire genres infiltrated parental CD players everywhere. “Cry,” a single from Batiste’s album that won best American roots performance and best American roots song, is reminiscent of that era.

He does dabble in the now, too. The first half of “Boy Hood,” his collaboration with Trombone Shorty and PJ Morton, retrofits trap aesthetics for a meditation on the simple joys of childhood in New Orleans.

Ultimately, Batiste’s music is about feeling good as a collective act. Often that means playing things that will sound familiar, and keeping it lighthearted. On “Freedom,” a horns-driven funk strut that won the Grammy for best music video and was nominated for record of the year, Batiste sounds like he’s climbed inside the cast of an old protest song, and created a party anthem instead.

But there’s something else to understand before you can get Batiste: He comes from a city where time and space remain somewhat collapsed, and where a Black instrumental tradition that died out 50 years ago in most other parts of the country actually continues. That tradition is based in gathering and in dance, and as a result it’s got perhaps the least complicated relationship to musical pleasure of any living style in this country — even in spite of the increasingly desperate conditions facing those living there.

Batiste’s vibe might seem saccharine to someone from outside New Orleans, especially if you haven’t wandered Frenchmen Street with a plastic cup in hand, or found your way into a brass-band performance at Celebration Hall on a weeknight, or become infected by the Neville Brothers’ Caribbean-inflected funk on a spring afternoon at JazzFest. Listen to the records that Batiste’s New Orleanian peers are putting out these days — Trombone Shorty, PJ Morton and Tank and the Bangas, for a few, following in the footsteps of the Nevilles, Dr. John and Professor Longhair — and you’ll find a similar strain of happy-to-make-you-feel-good funk. Challenge your irony-addled, digital brain to love it back. See if you can handle it.

Batiste’s 11 nominations on Sunday — the most of any artist — touched on categories under R&B, jazz, roots music, film scoring (for his work on the Pixar film “Soul”) and classical music. What that tells you is that supporting a young jazz musician these days means getting behind something broader than any one genre, even when he’s a relative traditionalist, proud to stand in the shadow of Satchmo.