TV/Film

Inside Jon Batiste's Unusual Process for Writing the Jazz Music of 'SOUL'

'Soul'
2020 Disney/Pixar

'Soul'

"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.

Though jazz has a long history with animation, Batiste says he purposely didn’t lean too heavily on that, instead drawing from his own memories of his father and the way music bonded them — including the times his dad would let young Jon watch him play with the elders of their community. He was only given specific references for one piece: a collaboration with Reznor and Ross for a pivotal montage (a tear-jerker, as usual) toward the film’s end. (On Dec. 18, Walt Disney Records will release the original motion picture soundtrack plus a vinyl LP of Ross and Reznor’s score, as well as one of Batiste’s music.)

Powers calls 34-year-old Batiste, who was raised in a musical family in New Orleans and trained at The Juilliard School, “an ambassador for jazz in a way few other people are” — whether leading Stay Human as the house band of The Late Show With Stephen Colbert or guiding his “love riots” through the streets, most recently to support Black Lives Matter protests and encourage voting. In Batiste’s earliest conversations with Docter, he recalls being asked to write “something anybody who listens to jazz — whether a connoisseur or a first-timer — feels they can get into. My whole life as a musician, that’s what I’ve tried to do.”

To achieve that balance for SOUL, Batiste knew he wanted a band with “as many elder statesmen as are around [who] can be part of something as rigorous as this in the studio, with as many of the young lions I know.” Assembling that group — ranging in age from 18 to 95 and including drumming great Roy Haynes and his grandson Marcus Gilmore — was, he says, “one of the biggest joys” of the process.

Another was more symbolic: SOUL is Pixar’s first film with a Black lead, grounded in a musical genre born out of Black culture. “It’s astounding to have that platform,” says Batiste. “People might say, ‘It should have happened already.’ But this is the time — we’re in a space where people want to explore the culture, and Pixar decided the best way to do that was with jazz and animation. This music and these characters [will] live on.”

Deborah Coleman/Pixar
Jon Batiste

A version of this article originally appeared in the Dec. 5, 2020, issue of Billboard.