Jon Batiste's trademark harmonaboard will make an appearance at this year's festival 

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Sarah Israel

If you're used to seeing the Louisiana-born singer, bandleader, composer, and multi-instrumentalist Jon Batiste leading his versatile soul-jazz-rock ensemble Stay Human on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, you're in for a surprise when it comes to his two Spoleto performances. The opening night set will be a solo show, featuring Batiste on piano (and probably his trademark harmonaboard, a melodica-style handheld keyboard-harmonica), performing songs from a new, as-yet untitled album that's a collaboration between himself and producer/songwriter T-Bone Burnett (Elvis Costello, Los Lobos, Gillian Welch, Brandi Carlile, and dozens of others).

"It's an album of songs I've composed and songs that I've reimagined," Batiste says. "It was produced by T-Bone Burnett and we recorded it in New Orleans, so we're just going to do stuff from that recording session."

Batiste says he loved working with Burnett, but he's coy about the exact details of how they worked together in the studio.

"He was more of a hands-off producer and definitely more of an editor," he says. "We recorded about 40 tracks and then he took the tracks and sequenced them. He's got a lot of different studio rituals and I do too, so we created a really amazing energy. It was a great vibe."

Rituals? Such as?

"I can't really let you in on the rituals, but it was a great energy," he says.

Batiste's second set, which is sure to generate some excitement, is a collaboration with the Dap-Kings, the fiery, horn-spiked, old-school R&B revue that backed the late, much-missed vocal dynamo Sharon Jones, who died in 2016 after a long battle with cancer.

Batiste says that he was inspired to work with the band both by the mutual respect that the Dap Kings and Stay Human had for one another as musicians, and by Miss Sharon Jones!, the 2015 documentary about the singer.

"I was so moved by the documentary about Sharon and her life," he says. "But before that, Sharon and the band and my band had a lot of respect for each other. We'd see each other on the road and collaborate here and there. She was the real deal, and they're the real deal. They're a really great band that's an institution, and a lot of the music that they play comes from the soul and funk golden age. So, if you really want to hear that at the highest level, that's the band you go to."

As for why they chose Spoleto to debut this long-gestating collaboration, Batiste says "it seemed like the right timing. They hadn't toured together, obviously, since Sharon passed, and there was a lot of natural admiration there."

The harmonaboard will doubtless make an appearance onstage with the Dap-Kings, so it seemed like a good time to ask how that instrument worked its way into Batiste's repertoire. Turns out a piano just wasn't portable enough.

"When I was at Julliard and I wanted to go play with Stay Human in the subways or on the street or at a restaurant, I couldn't bring my piano with me," he says. "So, I started bringing the harmonaboard. And I would just carry it around Julliard in the hallways, and over time I started to work it into live performances."

Batiste still does street performances with Stay Human, which he calls "love riots," every now and then, even though his high visibility makes things a little trickier than they used to be.

"We had a show recently at the Bowery Ballroom here in New York and I did one," he says, "and everybody at the show was a part of it. They came out of the venue and onto the street. The only difference now is that there's paparazzi there. But I love it. You can take the music anywhere at any moment, and that's really liberating and fun."


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