When Jon Batiste suggests that his latest album, We Are, is “in a way” his first album, it’s a curious statement that deserves unpacking. This is an artist who, in the 15 years leading up to this latest project, has released seven studio albums, four live albums, four EPs and a film soundtrack.
Batiste’s previous two albums, Meditations, a dual effort with Cory Wong (released in May 2020) and Chronology of a Dream: Live at the Village Vanguard (released in January 2020), were both nominated for Grammy Awards.
Even though he is only 34, Batiste has already received the American Jazz Museum Lifetime Achievement Award and the Harry Chapin Ascap Humanitarian Award.
Plus, he recently added an Oscar to the Golden Globe award he already has. The Oscar was for the score of the Pixar animated film Soul, which Batiste worked on alongside award-winning scoring team Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, more famously known as industrial band Nine Inch Nails.
However, despite all this success and recognition, Batiste maintains that We Are, which Verve Records released in March this year, is a personal creative year zero.
His latest album represents the beginning of his “artistic voice really coming into its own”, Batiste says. And one listen to We Are is all the convincing a listener will need.
Synthesis of Black music
In interviews, Batiste has said that he first had the idea for an album that was a synthesis of many different styles of Black music in 2014, but that the idea would need to germinate for a few years.
“What I have created with this album is really a Black art pop masterpiece of all the different forms, from marching music to blues and folk music, from soul to jazz to hip-hop, creating an album that has all those sounds baked into it and speaks to the time that we are in right now,” says Batiste.
He makes the point that Black Americans have made “a strong” imprint on world culture and that the “lack of appreciation” that has been evident over generations for Black life and the enjoyment of Black culture is something that is “incongruent”.
In a way, We Are is Batiste’s attempt to correct this situation. He suggests that part of the reason he sees the new album as such a pinnacle in his career is that the real magic of We Are lies in how he has managed to blend all these diverse influences into a coherent album. “I have been working on my craft for so long that I am now at a point where I can do that,” he says.
It was recorded over nine months during 2019 and 2020 in studios in New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans. Batiste, the bandleader of Stay Human, the house band for The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, says the recording process began life in his dressing room.
He was so busy with The Late Show that he set up a recording studio in his dressing room, so he could jam and record ideas on the fly as members of the band joined him. “After six days of recording I had 10 different songs, which became the blueprint for the album,” says Batiste.
To complete the album, he invited members of his family and guests such as Mavis Staples, Quincy Jones and Zadie Smith to appear on what he describes as “an incredible coming together”. Batiste calls Jones “a musical grandfather” and says Staples is “a legend in terms of blending music and activism”.
Oscars and Golden Globes
As if We Are was not enough of a headline-grabbing masterpiece, Batiste has also been receiving plaudits and awards for his work on Soul’s soundtrack. The animated film tells the story of middle-school music teacher Joe Gardner, who seeks to reunite his soul and his body after they are accidentally separated.
“Soul was something that I felt compelled to do,” says Batiste. “The intersection of divinity and artistry has always been something that I have been interested in and this film speaks to that directly.”
But Batiste says that the film’s potential to take jazz to a whole new audience was also something that attracted him. “It’s about recognising this form of American classical music that comes first from the Black community and now is a global art form and a sociocultural movement,” he says. “It just felt like the right project at the right time.”
He has been inundated with emails, letters and videos from the film’s fans, many of which are very touching. “I got a lot of videos on social media, folks sending me their kids or themselves playing instruments, which was a common theme,” says Batiste. “Messages that said ‘You made me want to play the piano again’ or ‘Our daughter is now begging us to buy her a jazz record’ or ‘This is changing my daily mood, every morning when I’m making coffee’.”
He says these messages that show how people have been inspired by the film or just how people are “injecting the music into their daily routine” is the real payoff for being involved in such a project.
Musical and political dynasty
Artistry and activism are in Batiste’s blood. Born in 1986 into the New Orleans musical dynasty that is the Batiste family, he picked up music at a young age. At eight he was playing drums in the Batiste Brothers Band, before switching to piano at 11.
Now in his 30s, he talks openly about his family’s influence on his life. “There were many great musical families that go back many generations. There still are today,” he says, “including my family” who make up “one of the largest musical families in the New Orleans lineages”.
One famous member of his family is Lionel Batiste, the bass drummer of the Treme Brass Band, whose music featured on the soundtrack to the HBO series Treme. A younger Jon also acted in the series. Another is Milton Batiste, the assistant leader of New Orleans’ Olympia Brass Band, an institution that has been active since the late 19th century.
Batiste’s family not only has a musical legacy but a political one, too, which inspires him.
He mentions his grandfather David Gauthier, the president of the Louisiana Postal Workers Union, who was involved in the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike that took place between February and April 1968. After the deaths of sanitation workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker, who were crushed to death in a garbage compactor, 1 300 Black Americans employed by the Memphis Department of Public Works went on strike for higher wages and safer working conditions. The strike resulted in Martin Luther King’s presence, where he delivered his I’ve Been to the Mountaintop speech, the day before his assassination.
“I look at my grandfather as Malcolm X,” says Batiste. “As far as I am concerned, he was that much of a heavyweight in his activism during the time of the Memphis sanitation workers strike with Dr Martin Luther King.”
Protest music today
Following in his grandfather’s footsteps, Batiste was one of the leaders of many Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. His grandfather’s voice features on We Are’s title track.
Batiste says he wouldn’t claim that the protests had a direct impact on We Are, as most of the album was finished before the protests took place. But he says the album definitely speaks to them.
In a recent interview with Entertainment Weekly magazine, Batiste said protest music in our present moment “has to look and feel different than it did in the past”. He added that his impetus to go out into the street to protest against injustice was directly related to the idea of bringing music to people so that they can “reconnect with their shared humanity”. It’s something clearly evident on We Are, which brings as much pride and hope to the table as it does protest.
“I think that the protest music of today isn’t necessarily as straightforward as it was back in the day,” he told Entertainment Weekly. “It’s more of a spiritual practice.” He expands on this, saying that as he grows as an artist, the key is to understand how the art fits into the greater scope of life. “What is the intersection between divinity and artistry, that’s where I am really coming from.”
This intersection as Batiste describes it has resulted in a game-changing album, which at the same time is one of the most human albums you will hear in 2021.
When Batiste says his artistry is just getting going, he is not glibly dismissing his career up till this point. He is merely acknowledging that his new album is such a monumental musical and political statement that critics have been dropping names like Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Thelonious Monk in their attempts to explain to readers just how critical it is.
It is a work so important that Batiste already knows his career will be divided from this point onwards into pre-We Are and post-We Are, the latter of which promises to be an incredibly interesting and richly rewarding journey.