It wasn’t that Russell Batiste needed another project when the idea of Vida Blue was presented to him last year. But once he sat down to jam with Phish’s Page McConnell and The Allman Brothers’ Oteil Burbridge, the deal was done. “I had never heard Oteil before,” Batiste says. “But when he started playing, I just had to stare at him. Then Page came in on that little Andromeda keyboard, and I started kicking it. The stuff started rolling, man, and it was the most fun I’ve had in a long time. And when we played live, I was almost in heaven.”
At thirty-seven, Batiste is already part of New Orleans musical folklore, having replaced Zigaboo Modeliste in The Meters (now The Funky Meters) in 1989. In recent years he’s branched out to play and record with George Porter, Papa Grows Funk, Robbie Robertson, and Harry Connick Jr. (check out his opening fill on the title track of She), as well as compose for and record his own band, Orchestra In Da Hood.
The Vida Blue album (Elektra 2002) shows Batiste to be a master of texture and changing gears. “Anybody can solo,” he says. “Anybody can sit behind the drums and go nuts. Anybody can play riffs on the bass, and anybody can play songs on the piano. But playing music is when two or more people get together from out of nowhere and turn it into something.”
Batiste credits many New Orleans funk drummers for inspiration, but most of all Stanley Ratcliff and Zigaboo Modeliste. “When you hear me going off,” he says, “you hear Stanley. And my father played keyboards in The Meters, so I used to fall asleep right underneath Zig while they were practicing. I got his flavor mixed up with Stanley’s flavor, and I came up with a flavor that no one else has. You know what’s incredible? Those great players got a chance to watch me, and then went back and practiced the stuff I was doing. That ain’t no lie.”