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Jon Batiste: The spirit of Christmas, ‘love riots’ and 'The Late Show With Stephen Colbert'

When jazz musician Jon Batiste brings his foot-stomping, nine-piece band, Stay Human, to Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center on Friday, Dec. 15, chances are that concertgoers will be steered into a “love riot.”

“Love riots” are Batiste’s phrase for the funky, impromptu street parades he orchestrates with Stay Human just about everywhere in the country: on tour stops, in New Orleans, outside Carnegie Hall, and in the street outside the Ed Sullivan Theater, where Batiste performs weeknights as bandleader for “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert.”

What this means, no surprise, is that the Juilliard School of Music-trained multi-instrumentalist is constantly busy. At 31, Batiste’s other day job is artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, and he’s touring behind his sixth album, “Christmas With Jon Batiste,” a relentlessly chipper collection of 12 holiday perennials recorded with saxophonist Aloe Blacc, drummer Jason Marsalis and violinist Lee England Jr. And there are the high-energy “love riots,” in which Batiste and company lead audiences from their concert seats onto the sidewalks for a joyful expression of music and human interaction.

“I’m a very spontaneous performer,” Batiste says, reached by phone in a car on his way to a piano recital in Manhattan, where he also lives. “When we come to music halls, Stay Human and I just open our hearts to the moment, reading the energy of the crowds. What happens next is all up to the audience.”

By the time he landed his plum gig on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” in September 2015, when Colbert took over for David Letterman, Batiste had already performed in 40 countries, released five albums and appeared on HBO's Emmy-nominated drama “Treme.” As Batiste tells it, he and Colbert hit it off immediately during his July 2014 appearance on Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report.” It turned into a job interview.

“It was really, really fun and kind of weird,” Batiste recalls. “But I wasn’t put off by his improvisatory spirit. He felt a lot of joy in that moment, and there was a chemistry together. It’s hard to explain, but when you’re onstage together, we were discovering each other, our vibes, and the feeling hit us both at the same time.”

These days, Batiste can be found playing piano and melodica on television as the dapper, ebullient, straight man to Colbert’s over-the-top host. But his talent sprouted much earlier. Born into a family of New Orleans musicians, the Batiste Brothers Band, Batiste started banging the conga drums at age 8 before switching to piano at age 12, he says. But what really sharpened his talent was transcribing lyrics and music from Super Nintendo and PlayStation video games, such as Street Fighter II, Sonic the Hedgehog and Final Fantasy 7.

“I don’t think my parents liked it very much,” Batiste recalls. “When we weren’t playing music in the family band, we would either be making home movies in the back yard and practicing martial arts like Jean-Claude Van Damme or Steven Seagal, or playing games. We’d sit there for hours straight from morning to dinnertime.”

Batiste added the melodica — a lime-green, Japanese-made one — to his repertoire at 15, and his restless enthusiasm and raucous refrains eventually drew attention at Juilliard.

“I was there for eight years in the degree programs, so I was very much a staple on campus for a while,” Batiste says. “Actually, there was a lot of a support from the student body, and there was some controversy, because when I became a professional musician, I got a lot of resentment at school.”

Much of Batiste’s Miami performance with Stay Human will feature funky arrangements of holiday chestnuts from “Christmas With Jon Batiste,” including “I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” and “Joy to the World.” Pressed for more details, Batiste admits there isn’t a set list, nor does he want one.

“It would actually hurt the performances if we ever pre-programmed the set list,” Batiste says. “We thrive in the moment. I really do think this band has the greatest musicians in the country, if not the world.”

“An Evening With Jon Batiste and Stay Human” will begin 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 15, at the Adrienne Arsht Center’s Knight Concert Hall, 1300 Biscayne Blvd., in Miami. Admission costs $45-$125. Call 305-949-6722 or go to ArshtCenter.org.

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