"This is the moment I fell in love with jazz!" exclaims Joe Gardner as he sits down at a piano. The protagonist of Disney Pixar’s newest animated feature, SOUL, out Christmas Day, Joe is a middle-school band teacher who has nearly given up on the club career he once dreamed of — until a freak accident transports him to an otherworldly place called The Great Before, where he learns how souls get the “spark” that gives them purpose in life. His voice is recognizable as Jamie Foxx’s. But his posture at the piano, his elegant fingers and the music he plays all stem from a different artist entirely: musician-composer Jon Batiste.
Batiste’s compositions and performances, which provide the soundtrack to Joe’s life in New York (the film’s score, particularly in The Great Before sequences, is by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross), were created in a way novel even for the ever-inventive Pixar. Chief creative officer Pete Docter and his co-director/writer Kemp Powers would offer Batiste a description, theme or direction the story was following, and Batiste would write a piece of music guided by that alone. “It was like composing a piece based purely on inspiration,” he says.