Just as coincidentally, this CD from Marsalis Music’s Honors Series, Batiste’s first in ten years, was released in April. Marsalis Music is dedicated to providing exposure to overlooked or under-appreciated lifelong musicians whose careers have had a significant impact on other musicians. Alvin Batiste, known more as a New Orleans-based educator than as a commercially successful musician, influenced the producer of this CD as well as the founder of Marsalis Music: saxophonist Branford Marsalis. In addition, he influenced numerous other full-time jazz musicians and entertainment industry people like Herlin Riley, Randy Jackson (of American Idol), Donald Harrison, Kent Jordan and Henry Butler.
It was appropriate, though probably not planned to be so, that Batiste’s last recording included several emotional collaborations with or tributes to members of his family, making it a musical glimpse into Batiste’s personality. First, there is "Bumps," which Batiste wrote to describe his grandson. A scampering tune with a gotcha! upper-register accent in the eighth beat of the fourth measure, "Bumps" is enlived not just by Batiste’s fondness for the subject of his composition, but also by drummer Riley’s slight rumba feel behind the clarinetist’s improvisation. Batiste’s son, Maynard, wrote the emotional "Everlasting Star’s" lyrics, which family friend Edward Perkins sings: "Turn the darkness into light. / Teach my mind to leave behind / All those fears in my lifetime." In turn, Batiste’s wife, Edith wrote the words for "My Life Is a Tree," certainly an intriguing metaphor that no doubt described in blues form the Batiste family credo: "My life is a tree / The limbs grow weak / But the roots stay." And then there’s "Edith," which Batiste dedicated of course to his wife and whose melody he plays with energetic force, implicit at first in his long tones which evolve into a spirited improvisation.
Taking time away from his teaching at Southern University and New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, Batiste proved himself to be proficient in numerous styles, including blues (with Guitar Slim), road bands (with Ray Charles), free jazz (with a young Ornette Coleman), rhythm-and-blues (with Buddy Stewart), straight-ahead (with Cannonball Adderley), a Clarinet Summit (with John Carter, Jimmy Hamilton and David Murray), and modern jazz (with Ellis Marsalis, Richard Payne and Ed Blackwell). Some of that versatility comes through on "Bat Trad," a loosely performed piece over the changes of "Cherokee" that allows for Batiste to stretch out over a traditional rhythm section. "Salty Dogs," characterized by its second-line drumming under Batiste and Marsalis’s danceable harmonized presentation of the melody, recalls his work with Adderley, who first recorded the song.
True to Marsalis Music’s mission of providing recording opportunities for young jazz talent in conjunction with under-sung legends, Marsalis Music Honors Alvin Batiste includes 20-something pianist Lawrence Fields and bassist Ricardo Rodriguez, who contribute their own matured contributions, like Rodriguez’s mournal arco intro to "Everloving Star." For a generous and highly respected jazz musician who dedicated most of his life to jazz education, that mission is entirely suitable for Alvin Batiste’s last recording.