Things finally clicked for Jon Batiste just a week ago.
Last Friday, he attended a rehearsal for public radio’s “Live From Here” in New York City. This Saturday, the versatile keyboardist will substitute for the show’s host, Chris Thile, at the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul.
“I really didn’t know what I was getting into,” Batiste said Monday by phone before his nightly gig as bandleader on CBS’ “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”
“But anything Chris asks me to do, I’m game because I love that guy.”
The two musicians met about three years ago. After Batiste appeared on a New York broadcast of “Live From Here” in December, Thile asked if he’d pinch-hit this weekend because the mandolinist is touring New England with his band, the Punch Brothers. Batiste immediately accepted.
He said he has no concerns about his one-night gig. “Just gratitude. I’ve been doing ‘The Late Show’ almost five years. That show is training to do almost any kind of live show.
“I’ll feel right at home.”
This will be the first time the show has had a guest host since 2016, when Thile took over the former “A Prairie Home Companion” from Garrison Keillor.
Last week’s rehearsal at Carnegie Hall helped Batiste understand how “Live From Here” works.
That means skits like Thile does. Original songs like Thile does. And jamming with musicians like Thile does.
“I want to be true to the form of the show but I also want to bring my personality,” he said, drawing a comparison to music. “Like a standard, you don’t change the melody or the essence of the song, but you do put your own spin to it.”
Batiste didn’t want to announce the names of his special guests but he did say the horn section from his band, Stay Human, will join him. So, too, will be the house band of “Live From Here,” led by L.A. musician Mike Elizondo.
Batiste is busy doing the Colbert show all week but he’ll fly in for rehearsals on Friday.
Despite all his TV experience, Batiste turned to some radio friends for tips.
“Eat an apple to coat-throat right before you go on the radio,” he said. “And being yourself and being authentic always shines through.”
Reimagining NOLA classics
Batiste, 32, has mastered being himself in the music world. That’s evident on his latest album, “Hollywood Africans,” which reflects his musical roots in New Orleans.
The Grammy-nominated jazz album salutes his classical influences (“Chopinesque”), Crescent City piano (“Kenner Boogie”) and classics (“St. James Infirmary Blues” and “What a Wonderful World”).
His takes on those NOLA nuggets are slow and meditative.
“You have to think about the story of the song,” he explained. “Melody conveys the story, but everything around the melody is the emotion of the story. And you can change the emotion by changing a chord or taking a chord out here and there, and slowing the tempo down. I call it a reimagining of it.”
“Hollywood Africans” was produced by T Bone Burnett, best known for roots projects like the “O Brother, Where Art Thou” soundtrack and “Raising Sand” by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.
“I met him at Bono’s birthday party in Los Angeles a few years back,” Batiste recalled. “There were many different musicians. We sat next to each other. We talked music the whole time. There was a chemistry, and we wanted to work together.”
“Hollywood Africans” takes its name from a 1983 painting by the late New York artist Jean-Michel Basquiat. Batiste is creating a musical about Basquiat with Tony-winning director John Doyle, of “The Color Purple” fame, with the blessings of the artist’s family.
“Give it at least two years before you see anything onstage,” the super-busy Batiste said. “Jean-Michel is somebody I’ve been very influenced by over the years.”
He’s also been influenced by Prince, with whom he toured a decade ago — a brief trek in which Prince enlisted both Stay Human to play acoustic experimental jazz and saxophonist Maceo Parker to play James Brown funk.
“Every band represented a different genre,” Batiste said. “Prince had command of the audience. He had a real performer’s gift, which is to make an arena feel intimate.”
Feeling the pulse
Batiste comes from a musical family. He started performing with his brothers at age 8, first as a drummer, then switching to piano three years later.
“Everything is rhythm, even if you’re playing slow, something meditative,” he said. “Even if you don’t have a tempo, you have a pulse. A pulse is a momentum the music has. Music always has to have a certain forward motion.
“You learn that as a drummer. Your job is to propel the band forward, keep the pulse alive.”
Batiste has performed in 40 countries and recorded with such stars as Wynton Marsalis, Harry Connick, Cassandra Wilson, Trombone Shorty and Rhiannon Giddens. But he’s always cognizant of his roots.
The opening track on his album, “Kenner Boogie,” is named after his hometown, New Orleans’ largest suburb and home to its international airport.
A graduate of New York’s prestigious Juilliard School, he often wears his class ring from St. Augustine High School in New Orleans. “It’s a great reminder of who I am and where I came from.”
Even if he’s performing “Live From Here” at the other end of the Mississippi.