Jon Batiste Resurrects a “Lost Soul” on WE ARE

You’ve no doubt heard of Jon Batiste in conversation and song, for he’s currently an integral piece of the complex puzzle that is today’s version of musical entertainment and of being a musical entertainer. Being bandleader of Stay human, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert’s house band provides a steady gig and the financial stability that allows him to flourish and more easily express himself.

In addition to co-writing an award winning animated film soundtrack Batiste shares his gift with others, having performed alongside Stevie Wonder, Prince, Willie Nelson, and the younger Ed Sheeran, among others. However, Batiste understands that creating an album with his name attached is the most effective and personal means of emotional self-expression.

A “culmination of my life to this point” Batiste says, WE ARE recalls youthful memories, recurring feelings, and his views on the state of society. Consider it a musical autobiography aided by the jazz, R&B, hip hop, and soul he’s gathered from his New Orleans childhood.

The title and opening track, “WE ARE,” released last year in response to the Black Lives Matter protests, does however favor soul. The core instrumentation of drums, piano, and electric guitar drives the various vocalists that include members of Batiste’s family but especially The Gospel Soul Children of New Orleans.

The song contains elements of “old fashioned” soul and sounds somewhat like “church music,” though the message strays far from religion. The lyrics, telling of a “country full of stars” wasting away through “lying in the dark,” combine with the dramatic tune to produce a tragedy—a premature funeral for the artists who’ll never join the “chosen ones” and “golden ones” referred to in the song’s chorus. It’s empowering; effectively fooling you into believing you’re the next big thing, until the St. Augustine High School Marching 100 fades into confusion at the end leaving you to realize you are hurting.

Other tracks, though sharing the grand opening’s style, tell very different stories. In “TELL THE TRUTH” Batiste recalls his father’s parting advice as the young man leaves home to “just tell the truth.” The string accompaniment strengthens the message by using chords that musically oppose the melody creating a dissonance designed to express the consequences of lying.

Batiste uses the song to stress the message’s importance, for without it he (and the listener) may struggle to “love how you live.” On the other hand, despite its silky harmonies, the subject of “SING” is overworn. The artist sings about how when he’s “cold and tired, and so uninspired,” he’s relieved through music. This is most definitely wholesome and valid but ironically forgettable in an album that concerns itself with how music revives memories.

Like “SING”, “CRY,” invokes the harder times, here using an acoustic guitar to produce a more “folky” feel to ask the question, “how does it feel when it’s getting too real?” For Batiste, it’s too much to handle with dry eyes.

“ADULTHOOD,” featuring the Hot 8 Brass Band, introduces religion and is thus the album’s first gospel sighting. Batiste dances between viewpoints, first looking at himself as the young boy who’s “gonna find his soul,” a reference to finding God. The harmony then fades, leaving only the artist singing in the present. The bulk of the lyrics are a search for a higher power, though as he sings of “wanting to see your pretty face light up like the city in the springtime,” it’s clearly more of a spiritual serenade.

A continuation of that prayer, “MAVIS” follows. Mavis Staples, a prominent figure in soul for many years, describes the connection between religion and freedom in this brief spoken interlude. It so fittingly leads us into “FREEDOM,” a song unjustly summarized by fans as another happy ditty. Why is this unjust? Simplifying the essence of the song doesn’t acknowledge its most impressive achievement: taking the concept of freedom and transforming it into a feeling. We all know happiness, and we all know the dangers of its opposite. What some might not realize before hearing the tune, is the unrestrained capacity to express what’s inside. If for some odd reason the song doesn’t reach you, the music video will.

“SHOW ME THE WAY” incorporates key elements used in the previous songs, but the result here is more R&B: a genre often thought of as synonymous with soul. The chorus line, “If I don’t know, you gotta show me the way,”while for some an expression of romance, can also be considered spiritually as in it’s God’s responsibility to “show Batiste the way.” It’s also neat how the artist uses the song as a device to mention his greatest musical influences that include Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone, and Ella Fitzgerald. Novelist Zadie Smith yet another of the artist’s admired figures also appears as a backing vocalist on the track.

“Batiste must be a jazz guy with influences like that,” you may say. You’d be right. With the release of his debut album in 2005 it’s where he began. Even today his heart won’t let jazz go. “MOVEMENT 11’” is most similar to his older style, demonstrating in the song his prodigious keyboard skills. Strings accompany the pianist, softening or sharpening as needed the expressed ideas. Lacking a chorus to “land on,” the song is an adventure in strings and hammers.

“I NEED YOU,” a boogie-woogie style explosion, is the second jazz-inspired track. It trades the electric bass for an upright as traditionally called for and features the drums, piano and saxophone. The vocals don’t venture too far from “I just need you, you, you,” as the title suggests, but there are certain standout metaphors: “don’t need another million, you got that goldmine” and “If you was Jenny, I guess I was Forrest,” (as in Gump). Even so, the most thrilling part of the tune has to be the breaks into rap, which at first come as quite a shock.

“WHATCHUTALKINBOUT” is the album’s strongest combination of jazz and rap. The drummer and bassist provide a sloshy yet simultaneously controlled backing, which is perfect as Batiste struggles to contain frustration over those questioning his rap creds. The aloof delivery and aggressive yet good natured spirit of the lyrics really make this special. Take the first line, “I’m flying a plane to Mars, with bars that rocket me to a new level.” This wordplay engages the listener, making the song unique right from the get-go. At the close, the artist reveals that even on “my new level” he still “don’t know whatchutalkingbout.” It’s an observation that no matter how far he goes musically, he “never will have the message of Pac.”

In “BOY HOOD,” Batiste fully embraces hip hop and reminisces about his New Orleans upbringing. Its boomy bass, digital drums and rap-ridden verses represent quite a departure for the artist, though clearly a well-planned one. The lyrics include a grocery list of childhood delights such as candy canes, cornbread, hot fries, and Popeye’s “when they had that red, white, and blue bag.” Fortunately the lyrics go beyond food and include clever nods to childhood faith like holy water and family member descriptions, such as “Grandma [who] was an ATM.” Boyhood musician friends including, PJ Morton and Trombone Shorty make welcome appearances too, through vocal contributions to the chorus and near the end a trombone solo.

“UNTIL” joins together multiple generations to produce a gorgeous collage of sound. By this final track, Batiste has covered the past and present, but here shares his dreams for the future. An unnamed child pleads the singular lyric “Jon, let’s go home now,” possibly meaning it’s time to go home to a world of harmony, pun intended. The interpretability of the song is, however, incredible, and one can only imagine what meaning this song holds for the artist himself. It’s never a bad idea to leave the fans wondering.

Given all the praise, what’s there to complain about? The truth is there’s very little. The noticeable flaw to this production is the slightly over-compressed lead vocals, most clearly heard on the vinyl release. Unfortunately it detracts somewhat from the believability of the experience.

The “made in Canada” sticker on the shrink wrap more than likely indicates that Precision Record Pressing, an affiliate of GZ Media located in Burlington outside of Toronto, pressed the record, which other than a minor bit of warpage that doesn’t affect playback, was very well pressed. A grey printed inner sleeve that matches the lyric booklet houses the disc. The higher priority of a gatefold over a poly-lined sleeve is questionable, though that decision might be justified by the jacket’s inner page liner notes written by Quincy Jones.

The only topic left to cover is, why is everything on the album capitalized? A common trend nowadays seems to be to make a “statement” by forgoing rules we’ve had in place for ages. A general conclusion is this: there’s a lot of music out there. The challenge to stand out in this musical climate becomes by the day more daunting. Tweaking the presentation of one’s music, even down to the titles, is a tool. In this case, it’s used to stress the superiority and importance of the music. That begs the question, is this music both superior and important? Absolutely.

(Nathan Zeller is a Beatles fanatic and budding audiophile found in Western Canada. Currently, he’s enjoying what he considers his final “worry free” summer: the last long break free of student loan debt and general panic over the future.)

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JEB-42's picture

DAMN! That's some feel good music. That video is a real pick me up too! Well done and an excellent review for a recording I would have passed over. Now I'll dig much deeper.

I've only looked at John as a quirky side kick to Stephen Colbert. I knew of his musical talents but had little interest. Thanks for shedding some great light on this performer. Again.....Well done!

rich d's picture

"Brevity is the soul of wit"

- Wm. Shakespeare

isaacrivera's picture

For a prolific author of lengthy plays...

rich d's picture

...thanks for the interesting link. I've never seen the line count or timings but they more or less coincide with my impressions from reading and seeing the plays (I haven't seen 'em all, obviously). I was amused to see that the shortest one is the one he probably didn't write.

This doesn't change my view that unless you're reviewing Blonde on Blonde or Kind of Blue, limit the word count to sonnet level and leave the plays to the Bard.

Intermediate Listener's picture

Including on Colbert in both speaking and musical roles, though he seems underutilized. Johnny Carson (no slouch in the ego department) gave more opportunities to his bandleaders Skitch Henderson and Doc Severinsen.

Harrison_W's picture

It may be a bit shameful to admit but I learned about Jon Batiste while listening to the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis album of music by John Lewis, where Batiste performed solo parts.

I learned and forgot until I came across a YouTube recording of the concert on the occasion of his 33rd birthday: "Jon Batiste & Friends," where he showed himself to be an accomplished showman and vocalist.

If we look at the list of accomplishments of this young artist, we will catch our heads. Jon Batiste has talent and he uses it to create ambitious, moving music that sinks deep into the heart. I love this album.

Harrison Worcester

jamiefrank's picture

We Are is a stellar album that connects a rich level of tradition and modernity together proving Batiste is as steeped in classic gospel, soul, jazz, and funk as he is the pop and hip-hop of the last two decades. Furthermore, We Are is ties together a level of simplicity with sublime technical genius, making it a record that should be admired equally for its musicianship and intricate songwriting as for its ability to seemingly fit in with the contemporary music of today. If We Are demonstrates anything, it is that Batiste is peerless in his creativity and delivery. Besides, cubes 2048 is also an interesting game. Try it right now!