Marsalis Music, a label founded by brother Branford for, “artists who want to be musicians, not marketing creations”, has been honoring underappreciated figures—an honorable and fruitful way to give great music a larger audience. It would be inevitable then, that Branford would pay tribute to his legendary teacher, clarinetist Alvin Batiste.
And the honor came just in time, as Professor Batiste died just a few weeks ago, 6 May, 2007, within a month of this release. Alvin Batiste, one of the few recorded testaments to the great man’s talent, stands as a delightful, if limited memory.
Alvin Batiste is known for more than his playing. A New Orleans native, Batiste learned bebop on the clarinet from the start—fusing a vocalized Bourbon Street groove with the harmonic daring of Bird and Diz. But he also was the first African-American soloist with the New Orleans Philharmonic, one of the first African-Americans to receive a Masters degree in Music from Louisiana State University, and the founder of several programs of jazz studies—including the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts (NOCCA), where he taught a bevy of future jazz and pop stars.
Alvin Batiste takes on several styles, but it is all easy going—a romp of a disc that does not much exploit Batiste’s skills as a chamber jazz and avant-garde player. This is no weakness, though; the tone and focus of Alvin Batiste makes for a strong listen—a Saturday afternoon of a jazz record that takes you through vocals, modern styles, Latin grooves, ballads, and plenty-plenty great playing. Tacking on Batiste’s properly praised out-jazz would have taxed this particular disc. For those who can still find them, his recordings with the collective Clarinet Summit (with David Murray, John Carter, and Jimmy Hamilton—on India Navigation and Black Saint) are highly recommended.
Here, the feel is that of a hearty mainstream band. A righteous young rhythm section—Lawrence Fields on piano, Ricardo Rodriguez on bass, and Herlin Riley on drums—backs Batiste throughout. Then, Russell Malone adds stinging/mellow guitar on four tracks, Branford blows gently on a few, and vocalist Edward Perkins adds a fun, down-home vocal on four Batiste originals.
Some folks will surely quibble with the vocals here—delivered with a good-time, casual vibe, and hardly the kind of studied “jazz singing” that we’re used to hearing on a “serious” jazz disc. “Clean Air” is a joyous romp with a N’awlins parade groove that starts the disc off on a sunny note. Vocalist Edward Perkins sings in a sandpaper baritone reminiscent more of Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson than a slickster like Johnny Hartman or Billy Eckstine. “Everloving Star” is a minor-mode ballad, casually put across, that sets up loving solos by the leader and Marsalis, who sounds light and easy in all his appearances. “My Life is a Tree” is a modal blues with minimal vocal melody—something tossed off vocally, but played with a generous intensity by the musicians. Finally, Edwards enlivens “Salty Dogs”, a funky blues that Batiste recorded with Nat and Cannonball Adderley some 45 years ago. These four tracks—all containing lively and thoughtful improvisations—frame a series of more modern or abstract tracks that nevertheless maintain a mood of pleasant exploration.
“I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” is simply a strong ballad—the kind of blues playing that takes its time, and properly so. Fields plays with confidence in a jazz/gospel style, commanding the trio to support the great man’s clarinet. On “Bumps”, a busy groove built around a dancing Herlin Riley, Batiste clearly feels at home negotiating a Latin groove at quick tempo. Even at this late date, well ... the cat can play.
A love for modern jazz is clear on “The Latest”, Batiste’s take on the classic “Giant Steps” chord changes. The whole band flies through them like they were nothing but softened butter. “Bat Trad” may be the disc’s oddest, or most “out” tune—a tricky melody stated first over a stuttering drum groove and then over fleet swing. Batiste is expert at phrasing his improvised lines so they seem extemporaneous and loose even as he traces the harmonies with considerable precision. Malone’s guitar is equally superb here—another underappreciated in the making.
The highlight of the record, though, is a performance that seems both old-fashioned and fresh—a mid-tempo rendering of “Skylark”. The leader plays the Hoagy Carmichael tune with just the guitar trio backing him, and the pure melodicism is utterly compelling. One of trickiest of standards, with a dastardly melody that snakes chromatically in the bridge, “Skylark” falls willingly under Batiste’s fingers. He drops all the right notes from the tune to fill it with air, and yet his solo fleshes out the tune with embellished tones that seem to make it more complex all over again. It is the work of a modern master.
Quite sadly, we now know that this master’s work is over. Yet in the affection of his student, Marsalis, there is more musical generosity afoot. Branford’s interest in throwing light on great, unsung players like Alvin Batiste is a fitting legacy for Batiste himself. Having given to so many students over the years, Alvin Batiste is a nice bit of payback. May it stay in print indefinitely, letting the obvious joy of Batiste’s clarinet play on and on.