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‘Soul’: How Jon Batiste Jazzed Up Pixar’s Celestial Fantasy

Batiste's invaluable contributions helped to qualify the unconventional "Soul" score (shared with Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross) for Oscar eligibility.

Soul Disney/Pixar

“Soul”

Disney/Pixar

Animation

Jon Batiste (best known as the bandleader on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert”) became the crucial musical weapon in jazzing up Pixar’s “Soul”: Batiste not only composed and arranged the jazz compositions for Jamie Foxx’s animated pianist, Joe Gardner, during his life and death struggle between two worlds, but he also served as a direct resource to director Pete Docter, co-director Kemp Powers, and the character animators. The importance of this can’t be stressed enough: the “Soul” original score (shared with Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross, who composed the ethereal section) has just qualified for Oscar eligibility (ahead of the shortlist announcement on February 9) with its highly unconventional dramatic scoring and underscoring.

“The film is tackling a few heavy existential questions,” said Batiste. “Where does our soul come from? What is our purpose in life? And I had a lot of experience as a musician that I could bring to Joe, trying to get his big break. I wanted to find some jazz music that had an ethereal and very universal, accessible form with melodies and harmonies that had that same spirit. So there’s an optimism in them, and it’s also a bit melancholy at the same time, and there’s ways that you can modulate and change the key, and it just hits you [emotionally].”

And when it came to Gardner’s virtuoso piano playing, Batiste provided invaluable authenticity for the animators. “Not only did he share with us his insight into jazz, but he also played live performances and walked us through his thought process while doing so,” said animator MontaQue Ruffin.

Soul

“Soul”

Disney/Pixar

The animators analyzed the video footage of Batiste’s hands to get a better sense of how they moved and how his fingers operated. “We also took the MIDI data of [his] recording sessions and transmuted it onto Joe Gardner’s piano,” Ruffin continued. “This allowed us to color map the keys on Joe Gardner’s piano in a way that corresponded with the notes that were being played by Jon Batiste in real-time playback speed. This isn’t to say that we didn’t have our work cut out for us, but between our thorough research and visual MIDI roadmap, it allowed us to animate and capture a performance with optimal accuracy.”

The first important piece, “Born to Play,” reveals the eureka moment when Gardner discovers jazz as a youngster, in the same New York City jazz club where he successfully auditions. Batiste channeled the ’70s and ’80s, when jazz was defined by a combination of fusion and neo-traditionalism. “I thought about the late, great [pianist] Kenny Kirkland,” he said. “It was high-powered and poly rhythmic. Those were the two concentric circles that I was playing with.”

For the audition, when Gardner sits in with saxophonist Dorothea (voiced by Angela Bassett) and her band, Batiste could easily relate to the nervousness of the situation. “I wanted it to feel authentic, even when he stumbles into the playing,” he said. “He’s not comfortable in the beginning, but then he finds his stride, and lets himself get into the zone, and that’s the arc of that piece, if you listen to the piano. You can play jazz in any way, so technically speaking, there are no wrong notes. When you tap into that space, it’s something divine and celestial [which the animation conveys with inspiration from the aurora borealis].”

Batiste scored most of the movie’s high-strung second half in New York, when Gardner scrambles to reclaim his body and make it on time to his gig, accompanied by a snarky soul named 22 (voiced by Tina Fey). “He’s looking at life in the sense of what it would be like back on Earth, and through the eyes of 22, a newbie, who’s never experienced it,” Batiste said. “Which is amazing to think about. If we could have that experience, I think we’d all be better people. And imagine having the chance to see life from fresh eyes again. I wanted the music to reflect that frantic wonderment.”

When Gardner finally grabs the spotlight at the club, Batiste went for “a roller coaster of emotion and excitement,” informed by “a varied set of music and experiences when you’re on the road and you meet so many people,” he said, “even when there’s the inevitable let-down afterward and you just have to go back home and shake it off.”  That moment alone at his piano when Gardner plays “Epiphany” was a crucial collaboration between Reznor & Ross and Batiste.

Soul

“Soul”

Disney/Pixar

“They had a vision for the composition and they presented me with the song and invited me to make the piano part my own,” said Batiste. “And that was a real pleasure because the footage was already animated, so I could get a sense of that whole montage, which, to me, is the emotional climax of the film. I thought about the range of things and how the ups and downs are all wonderful and worth it because, at the end of the day, we’re here and it’s such a precious gift to be alive.”

Particularly during this scary and tragic time of COVID. In fact, Batiste found himself doing a cover version of Curtis Mayfield’s legendary song, “It’s All Right,” for the film during the pandemic. He found it a struggle to make time for himself while connecting with other people over the computer. But it was worth it to reinterpret such an inspirational classic. “He’s one of our great poets, and I wanted to really do it justice by what I do and what the film is really all about. And a lot of people will see how great that song fits for the times we’re living in and also fits with the film.”

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