American musician and TV personality Jon Batiste offers a diverse selection of autobiographical songs on his latest album, “We Are.”
Having recorded and performed with artists in various genres of music while generating a buzz worldwide, the 34-year-old Juilliard grad is also the music director of The Atlantic magazine and creative director of the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.
As the band leader for Stay Human — the house band for late night talk show host Stephen Colbert, his scope of experience translates to a funky, adventurous 13-song attack. Essentially, the first half of the album focuses on universal and communal aspects of the human experience. The second half, shifts apertures, turning internal and personal.
A celebratory, strong introduction, “We Are” featuring the band from his New Orleans alma mater, the St. Augustine High School Marching 100, opens his eighth album. With an ear for hooks, the Louisiana native invited his grandfather and nephews to the melodious track. Southern marching band culture and gospel permeate the mix resulting in a genre-bending pop song.
Best exemplifying Batiste’s musical direction so far, “Tell the Truth” hearkens to the days of Motown with back-up singers, a funk refrain and spot-on bass and horn sections.
The second overall track even highlights James Gadson, (drums) who was associated with legendary musicians such as Bill Withers and the Jackson 5.
Darkening emotions with the slow bluesy, “Cry,” his falsetto, backed by hum and strong rhythms, commands space and conjures the feelings of isolation and heaviness that many felt in the midst of the pandemic — the same time this album was conceived.
Immediately flipping the script with references to Little Richard, James Brown and the dances of the 1920s-40s, the bouncy “I Need You,” explains the albums coda in the chorus, “In this world with a lot of problems, all we need is a little loving. Thank you, thank you. Oh, you make me thank you, thank you for your love.”
Following such a positive message, it’s worth remembering that his band, Stay Human, joined over their collective belief that human interaction during live performances can have lasting, uplifting effects.
Jazz-Rap isn’t a new concept (reference A Tribe Called Quest) but add a Punky attitude and video game-like synths to the rapping verses and you get “Whatchutalkinabout,” another entertaining, empowering ode.
In an interview with Apple Music accompanying the release of “We Are,” Batiste commented on the album’s structure and said “Boy Hood,” (feat. PJ Morton and Trombone Shorty) “Movement 11” and “Adulthood” (feat. Hot 8 brass band) are the spine of the record.
“Those three songs are a literal representation of my coming of age ... The transition from ‘Movement’ is this rich, multi-layered classical-esque kind of thing where, all of a sudden, you just mature.”
Nearing the end of “We Are,” the transitional “Mavis” — nuggets of wisdom from musician/civil rights icon Mavis Staples — and “Freedom,” fits perfectly together. The latter, with all of its funky trappings and social message, is just waiting to become the rally cry of a future social movement that values personal expression.