Musician and Activist Jon Batiste Opens a New Sonic Chapter With ‘WE ARE’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

By now you have surely heard the singles and/or seen the video for “I NEED YOU.” While composer, pianist, and bandleader Jon Batiste needs little introduction, this project, WE ARE, represents a side of artistry that we have not yet seen until now. It’s been a remarkable year for Batiste, famously seen leading the Black Lives Matter protests in New York last summer, recent Golden Globe and NAACP Image Award for his work on the soundtrack for the Disney/Pixar feature film Soul, which is also on the Oscar and BAFTA longlists for Original Score. He is also up for two GRAMMY Awards for his 2019 album Chronology of a Dream: Live at the Village Vanguard, covered on these pages.

WE ARE is already being talked about as carrying the consciousness of Marvin Gaye, the optimism of Stevie Wonder, the unpredictability of Thelonious Monk, and the swagger of hip-hopper Mannie Fresh. This album is a treatise on an amalgam of Black Music in all its glory and all its forms. He has plenty of collaborators. The album was written during the height of social unrest and the pandemic, during the sessions for Soul, and was completed and planned in just about week alongside songwriter Autumn Rowe from Batiste’s dressing room at The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, where he is musical director and bandleader. Consider these guests:  Mavis Staples, Quincy Jones, Zadie Smith, PJ Morton, Trombone Shorty, St. Augustine Marching 100, his father Michael Batiste, his grandfather David Gauthier, and many more. Along the way, Batiste collaborates with POMO (Anderson.Paak), Jahaan Sweet (Drake, Eminem) and others.

 “CRY” is essentially a protest song. The song’s organic blend of groove and gospel is also a reclaiming of folk and country as part of the Black musical tradition. Co-written by Batiste with songwriter Steve McEwan (Carrie Underwood, James Blunt), Jon is joined by all-star musicians including legendary drummer Steve Jordan, singer Emily King, guitarist Cory Wong, Robert Randolph on pedal steel guitar, Steve McEwanon acoustic guitar, and organist Sam Yehal. He’s also joined by his father Michael Batiste on bass. 

.The R&B/Soul single “SHOW ME THE WAY” features writer Zadie Smith as back-up vocalist.  The song was written by Jon Batiste, Autumn Rowe and Kizzo and it’s a nod to the artists that have musically inspired such as The Isley Brothers, Al Green, Stevie Wonder and The Stylistics just to name a few.  The song is an R&B cruiser that takes you on a melodic trip for three minutes and forty seconds “Zadie and I have been virtually jamming from time to time during the pandemic,” says Batiste. “She’s quite an accomplished singer and after one of our sessions I asked her to sing on ‘Show Me The Way.’ She can also be heard at the beginning of the track asking me what I want to listen to. Just as it does in the lyric, we’d often talk about records that we both are listening to.”

”WHACHUTALKINBOUT” is a rap featuring Pomo on Noise Box with Batiste on drums, vocals, bass, guitar, and 8 Bit Synth. In a mashup of rap, jazz, and R&B “BOY HOOD” has PJ Morton joining Batiste on vocals with Trombone Shorty and Jahann Sweet helping the leader with musical and electronic accompaniment. “MOVEMENT11’ is a free-form instrumental interlude with Batiste on piano and Michelle Ross on strings. “ADULTHOOD” goes straight to NOLA with Hot 8 Brass Band and the city’s own bandleader in her own right Tarriona ‘Tank” Ball assisting on vocals. Mavis Staples narrates the 20 second “MAVIS.” “FREEDOM” is a shake-your-booty tune featuring among the eight such principals as Autumn Rowe (vocals), Cory Wong (guitar) and Kizzo on multiple instruments as is the leader. “SING” is a late-night R&B crooner while the closer “UNTIL” fittingly brings in the Mardi Gras Indians.

Few artists would have the resources and wide network that Batiste commands to pull off a project so large in scope. Time will tell whether this will become a document that represents these times the way Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On spoke the culture of the early ‘70s.

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One Response

  1. this album sucked, adulthood was the only good song and it needs to be like 2 minutes longer. whole rest of the album sounds corny as fuck

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