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.

Keep it Shakin’ While We Can: Jon Batiste sings for his city

batiste

“A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his own image,” Joan Didion wrote. If she’s right, then the City of New Orleans must surely belong to the musicians who have at once ratified and expanded its traditions. Think of soul stirrer Irma Thomas, R&B shaman Dr. John, most of all the late and eternally-cool Allen Toussaint. Think also of the prodigious John Batiste, the singer and pianist who, as Stephen Colbert’s bandleader, stands as New Orleans’ most prominent cultural ambassador, smuggling Dixieland swing into mainstream America five nights a week. Batiste makes his major label debut with Hollywood Africans, also the first album he’s made without his unruly Stay Human collective, and it’s further proof of the gravity with which he assumes his emissary role: It’s music made by a man who knows he’s a keeper of the flame, and understands his duties to encompass both historical curation and progressive ideation.

If the album is about any one thing, it’s about the intersection between person and place—how geography and culture shape a man, and continue to exert a gravitational pull throughout his life. Given that, it’s important to know that Batiste cut Hollywood Africans in an old New Orleans church. It may also help to know that he made the album with producer and roots music impresario T-Bone Burnett, present not so much to shape the record’s sound as to preside over a séance, calling the rattling haints of Crescent City song and story into era-spanning communion. The result is a mixture of Batiste originals and sacred texts—a few ornamented by strings, percussion, or harmony singers, but most presented solo and unadorned. Burnett captures all of it with the same analog austerity he’s favored since Raising Sand, his Grammy-winning team-up with Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. It’s a muted approach that seems jarring at first, diametrically opposed to the exuberance Batiste channels night after night on The Late Show, yet it’s ultimately the right choice for an album that shows off a different side of Batiste—earnest, meditative, grateful in his acknowledgement of the giants who have come before him, humbled to reveal how he’s built on their achievements.

You can hear it in his engagement with some of New Orleans’ most hallowed documents, like a shimmering and blissed-out reading of the Louis Armstrong staple “What a Wonderful World.” Batiste sings it not as a feel-good anthem so much as a meditation on holy wonder and active gratitude; it drones where Armstrong’s exults, and feels almost liturgical in its calming resonance. There’s also a reading of “Saint James Infirmary Blues” where the artist is comfortable enough with the song’s familiar contours that he can both lean into camp (listen to the disembodied voices and funeral-march horns that haunt the song’s periphery, like the ghosts of all the New Orleans bluesmen who’ve performed it before) and sprinkle in his own goofy humor (“she ain’t never gonna find another sharp-dessin’ piano player like me,” he winks), all while upholding the song as a serious piece of folklore.

These gently revisionist histories set the parameters for Hollywood Africans, where tradition exists not to be recited into the public record but to provide a malleable language for personal expression—and Batiste takes that even further with his originals, the best of which are instrumental. Opening song “Kenner Boogie,” named for the New Orleans suburb where he honed his chops, is a blazing three-minute history of stride piano, encompassing everyone from James P. Johnson to Little Richard in its raucous two-handed fury. “Chopinesque,” meanwhile, belongs to a lineage of jazz compositions that keep one foot in classical sophistication, the other in the free-flowing logic of swing (think of Mingus’ brainy ballets, Ellington’s symphonic masterworks, or Brad Mehldau’s luxuriant After Bach).

Batiste is eloquent in his native tongue, even as he bends it to his modern dialect. You might think his carefully-plunked melody on “Green Hill Zone” is a lost Solo Monk outtake, at least until the strings enter—but actually, it’s a melody snatched from Sonic the Hedgehog, a video game that shares bandwidth in Batiste’s head with shopworn standards like “Smile” and “The Very Thought of You,” both played straight here. There’s also “Mr. Buddy,” a ruminant and tender-hearted recollection of a childhood mentor or teacher. The deeper Batiste goes into the rhythms of his city, the more they seem to shake loose these remembrances, and the more fully his personality blossoms; what seems at first like a travelogue reveals itself to be a self-portrait, and an argument that person and place are never fully separable.

All of that lends gravity to the closing song, a Batiste original called “Don’t Stop.” A pensive waltz, the song urges open-hearted, resilient love; in another context, it might sound naïve, but here it’s a bloom of hope planted in a very particular soil, the same soil that nurtured Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” and Toussaint’s “Yes We Can.” “Let’s keep it shakin’ while we can,” Batiste sings, sounding not quite like all the cats who kept things shakin’ before.