We Are

Jon Batiste

Verve Records, 2021

http://www.jonbatiste.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/13/2021

In Paul Stump’s examination of progressive rock The Music’s All That Matters, he observes that many progressive musicians manifest what he describes as “a hankering after the transcendent.” Their goal being to transport both themselves and their audience to some higher plane through the medium of music.

It’s a goal clearly shared by Jon Batiste, whose entire musical purpose seems to be to uplift both his audience and himself into a more positive space. If that description sounds a little woo-woo for you, though, hang in there. Batiste’s winning manner and musical exuberance have a way of bringing around even the most cynical observers.

Batiste was born and raised in Louisiana and his music draws first and foremost from the rich traditions of New Orleans jazz, soul, funk and gospel. As a student at Julliard (Bachelor’s ’08, Master’s ’11) he honed both his piano-playing and his compositional chops to a fine point. In the process of touring and promoting his first Verve album Social Music (2013), he landed an appearance on The Colbert Report, where he forged an instant connection with the host, leading Colbert and his studio audience out onto the street for an impromptu jam and earning himself an invitation in 2015 to become the bandleader and musical director for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert. The beauty of Batiste’s musical gift is that he carries a deep appreciation and feel for the traditions that preceded him, while drawing from and melding elements of them together in a way that’s so startling and seamless that it can feel like magic.

The base of Batiste’s musical gumbo is always that New Orleans sound, but he’s also fluent in hip-hop and has strong pop instincts; he knows a hook, and he understands the value and purpose of a hook, which is to draw the listener into a song. And then once you’ve got them inside the song, once they’re invested, then you hit them with the message, because Batiste is  a man who makes music with a sense of purpose.

Batiste’s new album We Are arrived on the heels of Golden Globe, Critic’s Choice, BAFTA and Academy Awards for the soundtrack he co-composed and performed for the Disney/Pixar film Soul. Supported by an ensemble cast of players with more than a few notable names in it, here Batiste writes and produces 13 tracks both alone and in partnership with collaborators including Kizzo, Autumn Rowe, Jahaan Sweet and Pomo.

The opening title track gets the blood pumping with funky finger-snapping verses that find Batiste veering back and forth between his natural register and a soaring falsetto, leading into an explosively buoyant gospel choir singing a hooky chorus that just about lifts you out of your seat. The bridge features an atmospheric spoken-word riff, and then he breaks it down for a powerhouse finale as an entire marching band drum section (courtesy of St. Augustine High School) keeps rhythm as the choir reprises the chorus. It’s spectacular, and the message behind the song is both simple and profound: we are never alone.

Transitioning into track two Batiste transforms into Stevie Wonder circa 1972, a little “theater of the mind” interlude leading into the deep funk of the stomping, jubilant “Tell The Truth.” With guitar, horns, snappy female background vocals and Jon wailing over a driving r&b groove, it feels like an Innervisions outtake, albeit one that should have made the album. It’s a song about integrity that jams like James Brown at the Apollo.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Sunny as Batiste tends to be, he’s also deeply earnest and thoughtful. “Cry” switches gears and tones to a keening piano ballad that finds the great Steve Jordan guesting on drums as Batiste plays his keening falsetto off against evocative slide guitar played by guest Robert Randolph. It’s just the cleansing breath you need before dropping into the juke-joint-jazzy exuberance of “I Need You,” with piano, organ and double bass pumping hard as Batiste exhorts his congregation: “In this world with a lot of problems / All we need is a little loving.”

With all the retro r&b and gospel influences of the first four tracks, it’s both disorienting and grin-inducing when he rolls right into the political speed-rap “Whatchutalkinbout.” Besides impressing with his mic skills—dude can rap like the Roadrunner can run—Batiste manages to turn the genre on its head in multiple different ways, coming across more playful than angry in his entirely clean ultrasonic monologue, while decorating the bridge with cheesy synth tones and trashcan drums. He’s messing with your head, in a good way.

The farthest reach here might be “Boyhood,” in which Batiste goes straight hip-hop, rapping over an electronic beat, and damn if he isn’t great at that too, laying down one fondly rendered vignette after another about growing up in New Orleans as part of a big, boisterous musical family. A lot of songwriters would have framed a song this nostalgic as a slow blues or a piano ballad. Instead, Batiste gives it a series of upbeat flourishes, culminating in a guest verse from PJ Morton and an evocative solo from Batiste’s childhood friend Trombone Shorty.

“Boyhood” then segues through a solo piano piece (“Movement”) that’s half jazz and half classical—because he can—into its companion “Adulthood.” Here Batiste counterpoints a taut, simple rhythm section with a loose, relaxed vocal, building to the point where a fat horn section comes charging in as Batiste sings about relationships and faith and the meaning of it all. 

A few spoken words of wisdom from the amazing Mavis Staples preface “Freedom,” where Batiste establishes once and for all that there is simply nothing he can’t do musically. It’s an absolutely hip-shaking, soul-raising funk-pop masterpiece that was the featured musical performance of The Late Show’s first show back with a live audience in the Ed Sullivan Theater in June 2021. The thing about it is that “Freedom” is so much more than simply a giddily infectious dance tune; it’s a song that incorporates elements of a dozen generations’ worth of musical traditions, all the way back to Batiste’s enslaved ancestors, into a song celebrating the very essence of traditional soul and gospel: music will set you free.

The overtly meta “Show Me The Way” finds Batiste name-checking a dozen of those musical antecedents, from Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday to Thelonious Monk and Wu Tang Clan—not to mention Stevie Wonder and the Beatles—in a song whose arrangement is pure early ’60s Motown. It’s a love letter to all of his forebears and influences on which Batiste sounds like no one so much as the immortal Marvin Gaye.

Taking the meta a step further, on “Sing” Batiste mashes up all of the above influences and writes a smoldering anthem of the soul, presenting music as salvation. The moment where he switches from falsetto to his regular singing register and put some muscle to it is spectacular, and then he brings in a little swaying New Orleans jazz before the fade. The album closes with another little theater-of-the-mind callback to his childhood (“Until”) decorated with dreamy piano and conveying that Batiste has lived a life infused with music.

Other reviewers have compared Batiste on this album to Marvin Gaye and Sam Cooke and he’s certainly got Marvin’s uplift and idealism and seriousness of purpose, and Sam’s combination of playfulness, melancholy and spectacular vocal chops, not to mention Stevie Wonder’s creative ambition and James Brown’s fire in the gut. But he’s his own guy, a singular talent, a musical unicorn.

“I just like to bring joy,” Batiste told an interviewer in 2017. “Whatever you believe in, whatever your feelings are, the music can always be a kind of balm to heal our differences.” Being who I am and coming from where I come from, there are some songs on this album that speak to me more than others, but there’s never a moment when I’m anything less than uplifted by the sheer creativity and heartfelt passion for music-making that explodes out of your speakers when this album plays. Jon Batiste’s We Are is a major statement by a major talent, and we’re all just lucky to be around to hear it.

Rating: A

User Rating: Not Yet Rated


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