Jon Batiste Pays Tribute to Sonic the Hedgehog on His Killer New Album, Hollywood Africans

For many of us, the soundtracks from games like The Legend of Zelda, Final Fantasy, and Sonic the Hedgehog feel like little time machines, transporting us back to those days when all that mattered was taking down Dr. Robotnik or unlocking Noob Saibot in Mortal Kombat.

Video game music covers have popped up everywhere from college marching band halftime shows to touring symphony orchestras, but to my knowledge there’s never been a rendition of a beloved game theme that’s appeared on a major album release. Enter Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste and his killer new album, Hollywood Africans, which not only features a broad-ranging recontextualization of jazz standards and jewels of the classical genre, but also includes a cover of “Green Hill Zone,” the theme from the first level of 1991’s Sonic the Hedgehog on the Sega Genesis.

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Hearing the melody put a smile on my face, bringing back memories of the bright, techno-futuristic world of Sonic, but I was genuinely baffled to see it included among sentimental jazz mainstays like “The Very Thought of You” and “Smile”—as if to say there’s more than enough heart in Sonic the Hedgehog to put it side-by-side with Billie Holiday.

Backed only by some strings later in the track, Batiste’s “Green Hill Zone” is tender, patient, and even melancholic in its lyrical runs of the piano’s upper register. Replacing the chunky synths and counter-melody of the chorus with some very minimal walking chords and intermittent string interludes, you can sense Batiste’s love for the legendary Sega series.

Apparently, Batiste has been slipping gaming references into his music for quite some time, like in this video from 2015, where he plays music from The Legend of Zelda with his Stay Human bandmates. As some sharp-eared Redditors have discovered, you can catch the occasional video game nod in episodes of Colbert’s show, such as the “Opening / Bombing Mission” theme from Final Fantasy VII, which YouTuber Nick Blombren posted side-by-side in January earlier this year, and yes, “Green Hill Zone” has made an appearance on the show as well.

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Beyond the surface-level joy and nostalgia that gaming offers, the breadth of musicianship and orchestration has given players an inroad to the world of jazz, classical, and otherwise non-lyric-centric music. It’s a dying art, especially classical music, which as a genre is almost completely gone from the cultural lexicon aside from film, TV, and video game soundtracks.

Hopefully prominent figures like Jon Batiste, who likely grew up playing these games, will bring an awareness and respect to these soundtracks and the artists who composed them, such as Koji Kondo and Nobuo Uematsu, who deserve acclaim at the same level of a John Williams or Alan Silvestri–especially considering their music is probably being heard by audiences that are just as large, if not bigger.

If quality gaming music piques your interest, pick up Sonic Mania today, which is available on all major consoles (and just got a great Plus edition this summer), or play Breath of the Wild, the soundtrack of which, by Hajime Wakai, stands as not only the best music on the Nintendo Switch but an undeniable benchmark for the medium entirely.

As for me, I’ll be humming along to “Green Hill Zone” and the rest of the tracks on Batiste’s magnificent new album.


Hollywood Africans $ 13.98

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Lifestyle – Esquire

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