It Ain’t Wrong for You to Play Along: Jon Batiste’s coming-of-age blockbuster

Jon Batiste has referred to WE ARE as a culmination, a bold claim for someone whose career has already proven so fruitful and unpredictable; in addition to his tenure with Stephen Colbert and his venerated association with Pixar, a quick scan of Spotify reveals 10 projects credited to his name, including the handsome, T-Bone Burnett-produced Hollywood Africans and a pair of live jazz recordings from 2019. But even a cursory listen to WE ARE proves that he is telling the truth. The album proceeds with a  purposefulness, confidence, and vision that suggest Batiste has effectively been apprenticing, honing skills that he’s only now summoning into the service of a fully-formed statement. Elsewhere, Batiste has christened WE ARE a “Black pop masterpiece,” another comment requiring some contextualization. It’s not a statement of hubris nor even an assessment of the album’s quality so much as a simple acknowledgement that he’s drawing from some particularly deep wells, synthesizing a variety of traditions into something that feels modern, lively, and accessible. This is one of those albums that sounds like it’s in dialogue with the ancestors, bringing history to bear on the concerns of the present. Indeed, Batiste recorded much of the album in quarantine, and wrote some of the material following a series of jazz marches and peaceful protests against the continued violence against Black bodies; it is a document of the George Floyd summer but also a reminder of all the historical ghosts we’ve yet to really reckon with. Conveying urgency in its sound and its steady momentum, WE ARE attests to its gestation in a pressure cooker… but it meets the moment with a graceful poise, a hopeful heart, and irrepressible joy. It’s hard to overstate the confident bearing of this record; its clarity of mission.

Loosely sequenced as a kind of bildungsroman, WE ARE posits Batiste’s coming-of-age in New Orleans as a model for collective awakening and engagement. The album journeys through blues, early rock and roll, R&B, and Black church music, with connective tissue provided by Batiste’s Soul-ish piano interstitials and grainy field recordings from his hometown. To list every Curtis Mayfield-styled string arrangement or diamond-cut James Brown groove might give the wrong impression— this is a work of synthesis and evolution, not pastiche— though it is at least worth mentioning how much the structure of the album resembles the imaginative, socially-conscious pop records of Stevie Wonder’s golden age. A student of history but by no means a stodgy traditionalist, Batiste understands you can’t celebrate Black music (nor the music of the South) without acknowledging hip-hop, which he does with surprisingly persuasive trap beats on the muggy, hometown-repping “BOYHOOD.” That he proves himself a nimble rapper is no surprise given how much this album celebrates Black voices, literally and figuratively: You’ll hear Batiste the hype man, the husky soul belter, and the smooth-talking loverman, plus the beaming voice of Mavis Staples as the oracle of ancestral wisdom. Indeed, one of the triumphs of the album is how much it signifies through pure sound. “CRY” gets around to acknowledging the plight of migrants and immigrants, but the lyrics are almost unnecessary; everything from its form to its solemn gait attests to an unspoken history of lament, in much the same way that “WE ARE” carries so much culture and context in its crisp marching band rumble. These sounds articulate above and beyond written language.

In fact, Batiste’s lyrics are the only component of the album that ever feel anything less than sure-footed, mostly when his efforts to balance autobiography with universality coalesce into generalization. “SHOW ME THE WAY” has a sweet premise— the singer is inviting a woman home with him for the chaste yet intimate act of spinning some records together—  but Batiste’s laundry list of luminaries, including the Beatles and the Stones, skews a little too generic. (A reference to jazz flutist Hubert Laws is the one really fascinating insight into Batiste’s own stacks of wax.) He sounds much more confident in “BOYHOOD,” where even his references to the most touristy of New Orleans haunts are delivered with hometown pride and familiarity. And maybe in the end, Batiste’s attempts to make WE ARE as broad as possible are part of its point, and key to its charm. Listening to the album over and over again, I thought a few times of Prince, another Black music polymath who gave the impression he could do anything, and whose superhumanity was often in service of weirdness, cheerful transgression, and kink. By contrast, Batiste’s vibe is wholesomeness. (“ADULTHOOD” reminds us all to go to church on Sunday; “BOYHOOD” features a fatherly voice declaring that he’s proud, just in case any listener needs to hear it.) When he creates loose-limbed, hip-shaking funk, as he does on “FREEDOM,” it’s not narrowly erotic so much as it’s broadly affirming of Black dignity, and suggestive of an entire range of human experience. When he sings “I just need you,” which he does on the inhibition-slaying “I NEED YOU,” he could be addressing anyone, but he is definitely addressing you, the listener. WE ARE is doggedly inspirational and clearly quite serious in its premise of unity, forward motion, and hope. And because it’s also clear-eyed in its lament, that premise feels credible. This album is good enough to make true believers out of just about anyone.

In Dreams: A breakthrough for Valerie June

A Valerie June fan of many years, I can say without hyperbole that The Moon and Stars is the kind of album I always dreamed she would make. I wrote about it for In Review. A teaser: “The Moon and Stars is arresting in its confidence and vision, pure bravado in the way June draws from folk forms but then bursts them at the seams with sound, imagination, and color.”

Serenity Now: The disciplined beauty of Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, & the London Symphony Orchestra

Speaking of the great and the jazz-adjacent, I wrote about Promises, new from Floating Points, Pharoah Sanders, and the London Symphony Orchestra. I didn’t listen to the album until after it had been anointed by other prominent critics, and confess to being initially underwhelmed by the music’s simplicity and repetition. Suffice to say, it has won me over in a big way, and I have returned to its unpretentious elegance more than a few times. Would recommend.

Notes on Notes: New albums, jazz and jazz-adjacent

A bumper crop. Loosely ranked, but all recommended.

Notes with Attachments | Pino Palladino & Blake Mills

Had this released a few decades prior, the Beastie Boys would have scuttled it for parts, making a meal out of the rope-taut bass lines and dank sound effects. It is exactly the kind of scene-setting, weather-changing music that omnivores and crate-diggers cherish, a record where the pleasures are modest but never-ending, song after song shape-shifting from lithe funk to free jazz to pulsing Afrobeat. It celebrates texture and found sound as brilliantly as any album since Latin Playboys, but with the added bonus of elastic small-combo interplay. Palladino, who has played bass on some of the best R&B records of all time (think Mama’s Gun, Voodoo, and Black Messiah), sounds at times like he’s on a mission to prove just how much ground you can cover riding a single, steady groove. The album is a near-perfect summit meeting between his low-end rumble and Mills’ affinity for atmosphere. And it almost feels like there should be equal billing for Sam Gendel, whose raw skronk is a perfect addition to this arresting mix. 

Tone Poem | Charles Lloyd & the Marvels

The title promises something meditative and abstracted, so the first couple of songs— rambunctious takes on classic Ornette Coleman tunes, complete with some Mingus-style whoops and hollers—feel like fakeouts. Tone Poem eventually settles into a series of wonderfully exploratory 10-minute pieces, giving Lloyd and his band plenty of time to expand on the earthy, rustic jazz they suggested on Vanished Gardens. Highlights? Try the genially rambling title song; “Monk’s Mood,” sounding here both sad and breezy; and a thrumming take on Gabor Szabo’s “Lady Gabor.” Now in his early 80s, Lloyd sounds as robust as ever on sax and flute; yet so much of the band’s folksiness emanates from the laconic drawl of the guitars, played by Bill Frissel and Greg Leisz.

Let My People Go | Archie Shepp & Jason Moran

Mere weeks after the release of his burnished solo piano album, The Sound Will Tell You, Moran returns for a set of live recordings with legendary activist and sax man Shepp. Like so many of the great meetings between jazz giants, this one settles on common ground— blues, gospel songs, and standards— that reflects a deep intergenerational kinship. The album is austere but also rich in its sound and deep in its spirituality, thanks to Shepp’s regal and authoritative sax tone, Moran’s majestic piano runs, and a few eruptions of surprising, sonorous singing.

I Told You So | Delvon Lamarr Organ Trio

Industrial strength funk. Organ trio albums can seem a little one-dimensional, but there’s a certain kind of mood where this is all you want: Crisp drums, chicken wire guitars, the hum of the keys, groove upon groove upon groove. A record so greasy that if they packaged it in a brown bag, it would turn the paper translucent. 

Seven | Cameron Graves

Pianist Graves, an associate of Kamasi Washington and Thundercat, made this album to unite his twin loves of jazz and metal. It’s just as macho and melodramatic as you’d think, but also surprisingly seamless, joining two distinct idioms in a shared language of virtuosity and precision.

Inward & Onward: New albums from A.J. Croce, Willie Nelson, and Yasmin Williams

At InRo, I wrote about a trio of noteworthy roots music releases, two of which delve into familiar songbooks: There’s By Request, an exhilarating covers album from A.J. Croce that turns to rock, soul, and R&B chestnuts for catharsis and release. And, there’s That’s Life, a second Frank Sinatra tribute album from Willie Nelson, which I like well enough but not nearly as much as the first one. Meanwhile, on an arresting instrumental album called Urban Driftwood, a young guitarist named Yasmin Williams starts drafting a songbook entirely her own.

Loss & Legacy: New albums by Steve Earle, Barry Gibb

In the latest installment of “Rooted & Restless,” I take a look at two new albums that both grapple with legacy: Steve Earle’s JT, which both mourns the loss of his son and celebrates the body of work he left behind; and Barry Gibb’s Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1, which recontextualizes classic songs from The Bee Gees. Both are worth hearing, especially JT. Though tragic in its circumstance, it’s one of the richer, more rewarding Steve Earle albums in recent memory.

One Little Song That Ain’t Been Sung: Catching Up with Margo Price, Drive-by Truckers, & Gillian Welch

The team at In Review Online is closing the book on 2020… and not a moment too soon. Before we turn our attention to 2021’s fresh page and new crop of releases, let me plug just three holdovers from last year that I really enjoyed: There’s Perfectly Imperfect at the Ryman, a majestic, thoroughly winsome live album from Margo Price; The New OK, which is probably my favorite Drive-by Truckers record since 2008; and the excellent third volume of “lost songs” from Gillian Welch, which I’ve already extolled.

Walk the Mystery: The essential albums of Sam Phillips

It could have been so easy for the singer born Leslie Phillips to stick with contemporary Christian music forever. By now she might have achieved some kind of emeritus status, living comfortably in Franklin or Brentwood, emerging every few years for a handsome collection of hymns, perhaps an annual Christmas tour with someone like Steven Curtis Chapman. Instead, with a 1987 album called The Turning, Phillips declared her independence from narrowly right-wing evangelicalism and its predilection toward propagandistic expression and pat moralism. Since then, she’s assumed the childhood nickname Sam and released a string of accomplished albums that wrestle with faith and doubt, avoiding dogma for inquisitiveness, ideology for poetics. These albums have not made her a star in any conventional sense, but they have made her a patron saint for similarly-inclined skeptics and believers who view Christianity as an invitation to embrace mystery. If she ever writes a tell-all memoir of her CCM days and subsequent emancipation, she could name it with one of her old song titles: “Answers Don’t Come Easy.”

Of course, this backstory is largely unknown and probably irrelevant to those who only recognize her as the composer for shows like Gilmore Girls and Bunheads, where her signature la-las bear witness to her easeful way with earworm melodies. It is pleasing to think that the TV gigs funded some of the cagey, challenging, philosophically-rich pop records listed below. Her role in Die Hard 3 probably helped, too.

Starting with The Turning, Phillips made seven albums with producer T-Bone Burnett, to whom she was also married. Their collaborations stand among the best work Burnett’s ever done. And yet, it’s possible that the most important creative partnerships in Phillips’ discography are the ones she’s forged with great drummers, foremost among them Jay Bellerose. 

Of the many excellent Sam Phillips albums, these are the ones I hold most dear.

01. A Boot and a Shoe (2004)
The best and final Phillips-Burnett collaboration happens to be a chronicle of their dissolution— and one of the most illuminating divorce albums ever made. If it’s tabloid pull-quotes you’re after, Phillips scatters them like breadcrumbs (“I’m not sorry we loved/ but I hope I didn’t keep you too long”). But her interest is not merely in cataloging grief; “let’s excavate the surface,” she enjoins, in what could be her life’s mantra. And so, in richly suggestive and meaningfully open-ended songs, she digs deep into themes of suffering and surrender; failure and loss as conduits for grace. The presence of God hovers over these songs, even if you can never quite pin him down. Maybe that’s the Divine arriving “One Day Late,” offering consolation to the broken only once they’ve abandoned self-sufficiency; and maybe it’s him Phillips is wrestling with “All Night,” unwilling to let go until he concedes a blessing. But then again, maybe not. These lyrics reward contemplation even as they evade tidy resolution; as ever, answers don’t come easy. If you’re looking for something rock-solid, listen to drummers Bellerose, Carla Azar, and Jim Keltner, whose work here makes A Boot and a Shoe something rare indeed: A singer-songwriter album that’s as taken by rhythm as it is melody and words.

02. Fan Dance (2001)
In many ways, a matching book-end for A Boot and a Shoe— same producer, overlapping personnel, similar half-hour runtime, comparable bent toward catchy tunes played on acoustic instruments. Thanks to Burnett, those instruments sound great: Fan Dance revels in the creaks of the piano bench, the rustle of acoustic strings, the rattle of hand percussion. And the songs seem to capture Phillips at a peak of inspiration: Hear her write gorgeous pop melodies worthy of The Beatles (“Love is Everywhere I Go”) and lean into her droll sense of humor (“Is That Your Zebra?”). The songs are about questing for truth through art, poetry, and beauty. In “Five Colors,” she offers another mantra: “I’ve tried but can’t find refuge in the angle/ I’ll walk the mystery of the curve.”

03. Martinis & Bikinis (1994)
If you only associate T-Bone Burnett with the analog austerity of his post-Raising Sand material, you’ll be in for a shock when you hear the colorful, kinetic sound of Martinis & Bikinis— merely one of the most tuneful and exhilarating guitar-pop albums of the 1990s. In those days, Phillips wasn’t yet writing with the level of introspection that would make her later albums so rich; mostly, Martinis levels righteous anger and prophetic witness against materialism, greed, emotional manipulation, and poor environmental stewardship. I take enormous pleasure in assuming “Baby, I Can’t Please You” addresses the CCM machine from which she was still just-recently unencumbered. 

04. Don’t Do Anything (2008)
Her first self-produced album retains a number of structural and thematic similarities with her T-Bone material, especially Boot and Fan Dance. The biggest difference is Phillips’ rediscovery of electricity, which provides several songs with a jolt of static and hum. Recorded by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss, “Sister Rosetta Goes Before Us” is rightly regarded as a classic. But the best song is the title track, which comforts doers and overachievers with the notion of unconditional love.

05. World on Sticks (2018)
Long wary of the outsized influence of commerce and technology in our lives, Phillips spent a decent chunk of the 90s issuing moral warnings that occasionally seemed strident at the time, but have largely been vindicated today. The self-produced World on Sticks sounds wiser and deeper, with Phillips tracing sociopolitical problems to our underdeveloped spiritual formation. (“Troubles on the outside can be reflections of troubles on the inside,” she says in the liner notes.) Sticks also reveals just how confident she’s gotten as a record-maker, with special effects piling up one after the other… many shaking loose from Bellerose’s drum kit, but the majority conjured with cinematic flair by The Section Quartet.

06. The Turning (1987)
Compared with many of the albums that came after it, The Turning now sounds a little bit stiff, a little too cautious. It’s nevertheless an absorbing pop record, and a striking work of conscience. To borrow a phrase from Obi-Wan Kenobi, this is the sound of somebody taking her first step into a larger world. 

07. Push Any Button (2013)
Phillips deals with heavy subject matter, which can sometimes obscure her gifts as a pop confectioner. This 29-minute party record comes spring-loaded with bright melodies, colorful sounds and texture, and crackling rhythms. Enormously fun.

08. Omnipop (It’s Only a Flesh Wound Lambchop) (1996)
Her boldest experiment— a bizarro mashup of winking lounge music, vaudevillian pop, and psychedelic experimentation. Burnett can always be counted on to line up A-list session pros, and Omnipop’s pleasures come primarily from the chance to hear the likes of Marc Ribot, Jon Brion, and Smokey Hormel creating such lush (or is it louche?) arrangements. Phillips’ songs satirize commercialism in a way that always reminds me of U2’s album Pop: She goes so far down irony’s rabbit hole that she finds its dead end. After this one, there was no option but retreat and reinvention.