Batiste has been, comparatively, unknown outside New Orleans, where he was born in 1932 and spent his formative years. His style was influenced by a broad range of jazz greats from Sidney Bechet to Benny Goodman to Charlie Parker, whom, he says, inspired him to learn clarinet. After college, he toured with Ray Charles and also played with Ornette Coleman on the West Coast.
He returned home shortly thereafter in the '50s and went into teaching where he was a longtime instructor at Southern University in Baton Rouge, La., creating his own jazz institute, one of the first of its kind in the country. He also taught jazz at New Orleans Center for Creative Arts.
His students have included many players who went on to success, such as Marsalis, Donald Harrison, Michael Ward and Herlin Riley. Seldom recording, he did cut a 1980 breakout LP with the group Clarinet Summit in the company of esteemed clarinetists John Carter, David Murray and Jimmy Hamilton. Subsequntly, he toured with the group.
This recent recording superbly displays Batiste’s talent and versatility-his ease in a variety of jazz styles. Accompanying him are a steller group of mostly young musicians-pianist Lawrence Field, bassist Ricardo Rodriguez and drummer Riley-with appearances on various tracks by renowned guitarist Russell Malone, vocalist Edward Perkins and saxophonist Marsalis, himself.
Seven of the 10 numbers are Batiste originals, highlighted by his playing on ballads, which is especially beautiful. Take both the haunting "I Wonder Where Our Love Is Gone," with his soulful sound suggesting Jimmy Hamilton’s work with Ellington, and Hoagy Carmichael’s lovely "Skylark," on which his melodic solo is framed by Malone’s tasty strumming on guitar. And listen to the happy beat on his own "Bumps," his staccato runs bringing Goodman to mind.
In his nod to Bird, "Bat Trad," Batiste’s bop licks come in at dizzying speed, followed by Malone’s lightning-fast fingering. On the hard-charging post bop piece, "My Life is a Tree," Batiste radiates Coltrane, with him and Marsalis challenging each other, this coming after a probing solo by pianist Field.
Appropriately, Batiste ends the CD with his funky creole piece, "Salty Dogs," a song he says in the liner notes takes him back to his youth in the Big Easy. Hearing this record of his final session magnifies the jazz world's great loss.