A couple of days ago I learned that clarinetist Alvin Batiste died on May 6 at the age of 74 in his native New Orleans from an apparent heart attack. One of the most distinctive, important, and under-recognized fixtures on the Crescent City modern jazz scene, Batiste had released his first new album in over a decade in April. It now stands as his swan song.
In the 70s Batiste worked with Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, but for most of his career he stuck close to home, leading his own ensembles. Perhaps his greatest fame came as a member of the Clarinet Summit, a licorice-stick quartet with John Carter, David Murray, and Jimmy Hamilton. “Mr. Bat,” as he was affectionately known in New Orleans, stubbornly found a way to use his instrument in bebop, a music of such rhythmic ferocity that the clarinet usually has trouble keeping up. Early in his career he became the first black musician to land a seat in the New Orleans Philharmonic, and he also helped break down the race barrier as a student at the once segregated Louisiana State University. Education remained a major part of his life; he created the first jazz program at Southern University in Baton Rouge and remained there for most of his life. The former Chicago trumpet whiz kid Maurice Brown was one of his last students.
Marsalis Music Honors Alvin Batiste, the album released in April, is part of a series on Branford Marsalis’ Marsalis Music imprint saluting veteran jazz greats overlooked by time. It’s more mainstream effort than 1993’s Late, my favorite Batiste album (it’s currently out of print), and while I’m not particularly fond of the guest vocals by Edward Perkins, it’s an otherwise fine farewell, driven by young New Orleans drummer Herlin Riley. Branford and guitarist Russell Malone also sit on four tunes each.
As ever Batiste exhibits a gorgeous tone—plush and round—and sews every phrase together with ease. Even in the upper register he maintains astonishing control, and when he punctuates one of his solos with a touch of stridency it always has a positive impact on the improvisation. The elegance he brings to a blues like Buddy Johnson’s “I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone” stems not only from his deep roots in jazz’s breeding ground, but also a perpetual openness to different ways of keeping jazz improv fresh.