Jon Batiste
Photo: Louis Browne / Courtesy Crossover Media

Late Show Bandleader Jon Batiste Discusses His Genre-Busting Year

Pianist and bandleader Jon Batiste is a near-perfect representative of what it means to be a millennial jazz musician in 2021.

We Are
Jon Batiste
15 March 2021


In addition to working with Shorty and P.J. Morton, Batiste has a some less obvious collaborators on We Are. The track “Freedom” is preceded by a recording of a conversation with the legendary singer Mavis Staples, for example. “Adulthood” (the bookend to “Boy Hood”—the two being connected by the album’s only instrumental piece, which blends jazz piano with a small string arrangement, representing Batiste’s move from New Orleans to Julliard) is a more focused track, but the Hot 8 Brass Band is the guest, representing the way that Batiste has carried his roots into the second half of his life.

The novelist and critic Zadie Smith, from England, is the most surprising guest. She speaks and sings on “Show Me the Way”. More importantly, this is one of the most compelling pure pop songs on We Are, with a killer chorus that rides over a rhythmic feeling that evokes the kind of great 1970s grooves we might associate with Gil Scott-Heron, Earth, Wind & Fire, or the neo-soul bands that love that era. Lush percussion and synths percolate beneath the vocal cries and moans, exuding a pure joy in music that is echoed in the lyrics.

The importance of collaboration was taught to Batiste by the late trumpet player Roy Hargrove—a player who Batiste explicitly nodded to on his Chronicle of a Dream recording. “The first time I played at the Village Vanguard was with Roy. He is an artist who represents the idea that genre doesn’t matter. He taught me that you can play ‘jazz’ or you can play the spirit of where that comes from. Roy had three different bands that I played in, each one different.

“Roy was a titan in how much he influenced things without being the front person. He was even influential on fashion in the music—he was a sneakerhead like me and the first guy I saw wearing Nike Air Force Ones with a suit. He would blend R ‘n’ B and hip hop with his jazz sensibilities: new brand of fusion that was neo-soul on sterioids. Roy was ahead of that with his band, the RH Factor. And he played on all the seminal recordings with D’Angleo, Common, Erykah Badu . . .”.

Of course, Batiste’s interest collaboration made him a perfect partner to Pete Docter and Kemp Powers, the creators of Soul. There, Batiste handled the “jazz” end of the score while Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor works another portion. Blending styles, of course.

The Sweep of We Are

Describing the new recording only in terms of soul and hip-hop, however, doesn’t do justice to the range that Batiste put into it. There is plenty of rock, classic roots music, straight funk, and even boogaloo blues. It’s not a jarring or schizophrenic listen, however, because there are so many consistent elements: Batiste’s buzzing voice, a jabbing horn section, and the range of analog keyboards that the leader wields like tempera paint: organ, ringing-analog pianos of every stripe, percussive synths.

“Tell the Truth”, for example, comes at you with a straight rock groove, but that is not all. Batiste’s vocals—processed slightly for a bit of distortion—are an edge-filled James Brown reference, with horns playing an almost continual staccato pattern that makes them a conga-drum counter-rhythm. Stax and Motown are both in the sound: the arrangement includes a bold string arrangement, of all things—evoking the way that soul producers from the 1960s could mix together orchestral elements as well as percussion breakdowns into pop music. In these two tunes, the sounds of the ’60s and ’70s are present in a dramatic way.

“Cry”, by contrast, sounds like it could be a classic roots/soul tune from the Tedeschi-Trucks band, with a slightly funky mid-tempo rock groove on the bottom and soulful “ooh” background vocals on the top. Throbbing, heartbeat bass keeps you moving while slide guitar talks in improvisation.

A hip-shaking blues, “Freedom” uses a horn section to create a loose-limbed call and response with vocals, Batiste as soulful soloist, a gospel chorus, and the brass, all nudged along by B3 organ and Wurlitzer electric piano. The lyrics suggest that certain kinds of freedom are intensely physical—the way a person moves, slides along the sidewalk, carries herself or himself on a dance floor. But, because Batiste is a savvy songwriter, he allows the comfortable groove to be momentarily interrupted by a bridge where the old-school funk is suspended for a moment on a bed of piano and brass (“When I loo up to the stars / I know exactly who we are”). The return of the dance feel is that much sexier for being paused for moment. “Oh, yeah” the background vocals call out. Indeed.

We Are offers a twin coda as it comes to a close. This is Batiste’s most vocal-forward album, so “Sing”—with lyrics that testify to the emotional and spiritual importance of using one’s voice—is a closer that acts as a bit of a concluding statement. The rhythm section is there, some padding from the horns, but mainly we hear a relatively plaintive Batiste, making his shifts from chest voice to falsetto, then riding over a wordless background chorus in playful “Oooohs” and James Brown-style cries, then even a bit of “Doo-doooo-dooo” action that takes you, again, back through several eras of Black vocal music. Tacked onto the very end is “Until”, which uses some more sampled voices to bring us back to where the album started.

The Rough Year

Between the new album, SoulThe Late Show (which has continued in a partial lockdown mode), and his concerts on the streets of New York, the last year was hardly a lost one for Batiste. And, of course, among those who come from the jazz world, it’s hard to imagine someone who has thrived more completely since the pandemic.

But Batiste knows that “financially, it’s been rough for a lot of people. I’ve had the opportunity to work on stuff that started before the pandemic. NY Pops Up is a project to help artists safely perform for people—we are trying to find a way to make this work and to  create something that works beyond the pandemic.

“The infrastructure of our business has always been fragile. This is an opportunity to redefine how these things operate to make it more equitable. I’m thinking about new ways to create artist-led and collaborative artist spaces. And not just for music.”

Batiste, as ever looking forward even as he draws from the past, points out that in the past there were spaces that hosted a huge variety of styles of performance—places like The Apollo Theater, for example. “Music clubs, dance clubs, opera houses,” he goes on—”why aren’t they all just combined?”

Jon Batiste has grand visions. But, as busy as he is, he may just be the person to get things done.