Mark Batson: Infinite Kundalini
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Mark Batson grew up in public housing in the Bushwick sector of Brooklyn; by the age of five, he and his brother, Scott, had been pressed into classical piano lessons. Living in such a cosmopolitan city, he'd learned to play in a wide variety of musical styles by the age of 12, including hip-hop, Cuban and Latin. He formed a jazz trio as a teenager, which was hailed for its reinterpretations of the works of Jimi Hendrix. During his college years at Howard University, he headed up a big band at the Smithsonian and played piano for the Howard University Jazz Ensemble.
While at Howard University, his extraordinary talent on the keys won him a series of mentions in The Washington Post, the region's major newspaper. In 1988, the Post reviewed his piano accompaniment for young jazz vocalist Arnae's performance at the National Museum of American History's Jazz in the Palm Court series, describing his "two fisted arrangements [as] both emphatic and evocative." In 1989, in a performance for the same series, Batson was the featured artist, playing many of Duke Ellington's early piano pieces -- he earned praise from the Post for his unusual selection of little-known Ellington works. He was invited to compete in the second annual Thelonious Monk International Jazz Piano Competition in November of 1988. He was one of just 24 contestants from around the world who were permitted to compete, and while he didn't win the $10,000 grand prize, longtime Post music critic Richard Harrington saw fit to recognize Batson's talents in his article about the competition.
After college, Batson earned no more mentions by the media until 1993, when Arrested Development released a CD of their January appearance on MTV's Unplugged, the musical series that has well-known bands perform sans amplifiers. Arrested Development was popular in no small part because they presented a more positive version of hip-hop -- like De La Soul or, later, Tribe Called Quest -- and their Afrocentric approach to music made their sound refreshing in comparison to the then-flourishing gangsta rap. (Arrested Development member Dionne Farris had a solid solo career in the mid-90s, during which she opened for Dave Matthews Band in the second half of their national tour in the summer of 1995.) Batson's contribution to Arrested Development Unplugged was playing jazz piano, notably being credited as "Kundalini Mark Batson," a nom de plume that he used for some years. (Alternately, Batson is sometimes credited as "Infinite Kundalini." The word is from Sanskrit, and is used in yoga to refer to dormant energy that can fuel spiritual growth.) The album was well-received, and Batson's contribution was acknowledged by reviewers as being an important one.