New Orleans native Jon Batiste was playing percussion in his extended family’s musical collective when he was 8. He switched to piano at 12, and has learnt countless instruments since – playing 12 of them on one song here on WE ARE. Having moved to New York at 17, he’s a graduate of Juilliard, a respected jazz pianist, bandleader for The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, a civil rights activist, an Oscar-nominated composer (for his work on Pixar’s Soul), and a tireless recording musician.
On June 6, 2020, in the midst of protests confronting police brutality and racial injustice, Jon Batiste led a New Orleans second line through the streets of New York. With over 5,000 protesters, an estimated 10 tubas, 50 saxophones, and over 100 trumpets, they played civil rights songs like “We Shall Overcome” and New Orleans classics like “Down by the Riverside”. It was a spontaneous show of community spirit in the face of oppression.
WE ARE is not your average protest album. It feels like a reclamation of music as a fabric of our communities amidst the current political and social environment. Expansive in scope, it takes jazz, soul, funk, hip hop, and pop and blends them into something entirely new. But its spirit is one of a traditional second line, and its more joyous than anything I’ve heard in years.
Opener and title track “WE ARE” puts that sense of community on full display, featuring Batiste’s father and grandfather, as well as his high-school marching band. The track has a funk-pop feel, sounding like Michael Jackson circa Off the Wall, with a gospel call-and-response chorus. There’s a live sample from the New York protests for a New Orleans-style marching band back-end. It’s an anthemic opening that makes you want to dance, march, eat, and be merry. And that feeling remains for almost the entirety of the album.
The one exception is “CRY”, a lovely piece of soul with crisp drums, a nice guitar solo, and some soulful backing vocals as Batiste switches from his natural voice to falsetto. The pain that leads him to want to ‘cry’ could be any hardship, but in the final stanza Batiste sings ‘For the struggle of the immigrants / For the loss of the innocence / Cry, cry, cry’. As depressing as it sounds though, in the context of the rest of the record, these are tears of solidarity in a world that needs healing. Something the rest of the album does a fine job of addressing.
The single “I NEED YOU” is a ‘50s era New Orleans swing tune that is so much fun! With a walking bassline, rhythmic handclaps, and stride piano, Batiste offers ‘In this world with a lot of problems / all we need is a little lovin’ / thank you / thank you / for a little lovin’; and “Freedom” is groovy soul track reminiscent of Pharrell’s “Happy” which just oozes joy.
Other standouts include “TELL THE TRUTH”, a funk song sounding like early-’70s Stevie Wonder. It has some lovely strings and a great horn section, and the lyrics are about his father instilling in him a sense of integrity. With a minute left, Batiste lets out a wild scream that begins a percussion breakdown. There’s a rocking piano solo, and a piano/trumpet duel, and Batiste’s vocals sound as if he’s possessed – it’s so funky! “ADULTHOOD” is a slow jam sung in falsetto, with a simple keyboard melody and a tight rim-shot, sounding like something from D’Angelo’s Voodoo.
Batiste’s foray into hip hop is the one experiment here that falls short. His rapping on funk-punk-rap hybrid “WHATCHUTALKINBOUT” isn’t technically very good, but the band is swinging and he’s enjoying himself so much that you can’t help but enjoy it too. Similarly, there’s a little rap section on “I NEED YOU” that’s a little cheesy, but it’s all so much casual fun that he pulls it off.
The essence of WE ARE is captured in its final moments. “UNTIL” is a field recording of New Orleans’ Indians singing “Shoo Fly” with makeshift percussion – maybe a bucket drum. There’s a mediative piano overlay, and a young boy begs his father to take him home. It captures the beauty of an everyday moment with the idea of sharing music with your community.
In New Orleans, jazz is infused with a sense of community. The melting pot of people and cultures becomes one collective through music – something you can witness on any given day in the streets and bars of this wonderful city. With WE ARE, Jon Batiste is bringing that essence of jazz beyond its traditional audience. Drawing from other Black art forms, Batiste creates his own gumbo to address the need for community in the face of any hardship. In the process, he has recorded a wonderful Black art-pop record that’s full of joy.