Award-winning musician, author and activist Jon Batiste begins a new sonic chapter in his latest groundbreaking album, We Are, writes Nick Benson.
American musician Jon Batiste has dominated headlines so far this year, as he continues to scoop up awards, including a Golden Globe and an Oscar, for his part in co-composing the score for Disney/Pixar’s 2020 hit animated film Soul.
However, while these all act as magnificent honours, this is just one part of Batiste’s work. In the United States, Batiste is recognised as one of the best-known musicians of his generation – a virtuoso pianist, singer, bandleader, educator and television personality.
He is well known to US audiences, having appeared alongside his band Stay Human, as bandleader and musical director on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert since 2015.
However, the recent success he has enjoyed teaming with Nine Inch Nails founder Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on scoring the music for Soul has acted as a vehicle, helping him reach out to new listeners and bring his music to a vast array of new fans.
The past 12 months have been remarkable for Batiste, with the aforementioned award wins and nominations; the part he played in leading the Black Lives Matter protests in New York last summer; and the release of his highly anticipated latest album, We Are.
The album represents a completely new sonic chapter for Batiste. Inviting some of the most esteemed creative minds to assist in birthing the album, he reached the finish line smack in the middle of the first wave of the worldwide pandemic and volatile social unrest.
The result is a body of work characterised by the consciousness of Marvin Gaye, the grounded optimism of Stevie Wonder, the iconoclasm of Thelonious Monk and the swagger of Mannie Fresh.
Alongside songwriter Autumn Rowe and producer Kizzo, Batiste wrote and planned much of the project in about a week from his dressing room at The Late Show.
We Are was recorded in New York, Los Angeles and in Batiste’s native New Orleans, melding inspiration from his new home and new collaborators with that of the Batiste musical dynasty.
The album was also recorded in between sessions for Soul, which saw Batiste’s music – and hands – incorporated into the animation about a teacher who dreams of being a jazz pianist.
On We Are, Batiste presents a captivating musical experience to the world rooted in catharsis, joy, freedom, contemplation and sensuality. It’s a love letter to his southern roots and the heritage of Black Music with guest appearances by Mavis Staples, Quincy Jones, Zadie Smith, PJ Morton, Trombone Shorty, St Augustine Marching 100, his father Michael Batiste, grandfather David Gauthier and many more. It is a meditation steeped in the sounds of the times with collaborators including POMO (Anderson .Paak), Ricky Reed (Lizzo), Jahaan Sweet (Drake, Eminem) and others.
“I’m publicly known for some things already,” said Batiste. “But there’s so much more to know about me. It’s always been there. Now is the time to show the world my full artistry.
“We Are is a message of love for humanity, of humble reverence for our past, and of a hopeful future, in which we are the ones who can save us. The art reveals its motive to you. You just have to wait for the Spirit to tell you what it wants.”
Born into Louisiana’s legendarily musical Batiste family, Jon has performed and recorded widely since his teens. His flexibility as an artist, his fluency in jazz as well as popular music of all stripes, has allowed him to collaborate with legends from Wynton Marsalis, a mentor since his Juilliard days, to Prince – as well as many of the widely-varied artists who appear on The Late Show.
As well as his work on The Late Show and Soul, Batiste also has previous experience in film and TV, having played himself on the HBO series Treme and appearing in director Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer.
Batiste is also co-artistic director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem and is devoted to the education and mentorship of young musicians.
In fact, his latest album opens with the funky, uplifting title track We Are, featuring the band from Batiste’s New Orleans alma mater, the St Augustine High School Marching 100.
“I wanted to have the marching band from my high school on this record, because it’s a historically Black high school that has a lot of legendary alumni. I was in that high school band and I graduated from that school,” Batiste told Apple Music of St Augustine’s Roman Catholic High School in New Orleans.
He said the track was made all-the-more special as it also features three of four generations of his family, in the form of his grandfather and nephews.
The track was originally released last June and although Batiste admitted that it wasn’t the final version, he felt people needed to hear the song’s powerful message of hope and possibility at that very moment.
“I felt it was what I wanted people to hear. That message was something that I wanted people to hear during that time,” he told Atwood Magazine.
“I felt like it was something that was given to me by God to say in the song, in the future, there’s gonna be a whole lot of people singing it,” he said.
“It feels like an anthem in that way, that you could hear people singing in a stadium, and I wanted to create something that spoke to that vision that I had. It all hit me at one time, and it just came out that way.”
Batiste is a devout Catholic and in his recent Oscar-winning acceptance speech he thanked God for the gift of music.
His faith also plays a part on the album, with Batiste sharing a message to God in the melodious and groovy Adulthood; “Dear Lord/ I pray that you bless our relationship’/ I pray that you help us not to fight/ And to get along/ And to go to church on Sundays,” he says. Later in the song he sings: “Mama said, do what you can/ Gotta be a Holy man.”
Batiste defines We Are as “a representation of genreless music that’s just about the story” and “a culmination of my life to this point”.
The album feels very much like the beginning of a brand new chapter in Batiste’s life and musical journey.
While, time will tell just how impactful the record proves to be on his already glowing career, Batiste has the full support of the music world, which is looking on with growing excitement at what his future holds.
• We Are by Jon Batiste is out now on Verve Records.
Picture: Jon Batiste. (Louis Browne).