“The music I’ve been making is a way to light a way to the truth of who we are and reintroduce us to the depth of who we are.” Jon Batiste used these words to describe the music of We Are, the pianist and (Late Show) bandleader’s latest album, in an interview with San Francisco Classical Voice published just days after his performance at the Juneteenth celebration in Brooklyn this past June. The music, spirit, and message of We Are—like most music released in the last few months—feels imbued with the urgency of the political, social, and physical upheavals of 2020, but Batiste’s enlightened vision was realized before this.
Like fellow New Orleanian Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s “Stretch Music,” what Batiste constructs here is something that can’t really be categorized: It remixes the last 400 years of Black American Music to dizzying and wondrous effect. “Tell the Truth” crossfades the relentless punch of early-’70s Booker T. & the M.G.’s with honey-sweet string arranging that suggests the likes of Jimmy Jones. The horns drive the brightness into your brain until you come out smiling. On “Show Me the Way” Batiste stretches his vocals to the heavenly heights of ’50s crooners like Little Anthony while seemingly taking cues from the Thundercat song of the same name, blending rumbling rhythms with the melty melodies of slow-jam R&B.
Lyrically, Batiste is forceful in directing listeners toward certain ideas. Titles like “We Are,” “Tell the Truth,” “Freedom,” and “Sing” are not casual requests or suggestions; they are commandments. However, he ends with the one-minute piano solo “Until,” a wayfaring yet hopeful tune that serves as Batiste’s final invitation to us to join him in the light.