Jon Batiste talks new album We Are: ‘This is just the beginning’

Jon Batiste is the perfect musician for these times. If you haven’t heard what he’s been doing lately, you haven’t been paying attention.

With a rich family dynasty in music, Batiste has made his mission about connection and celebration. Whether it’s leading his band Stay Human on The Late Show, recording with his group at the Village Vanguard, co-composing the music to the smash-hit Pixar film Soul, or releasing a brand new solo album We Are, Batiste has taken his music, artistry and activism directly into the 21st century.

Recorded in New York, Los Angeles and New Orleans, We Are is said to combine “the consciousness of Marvin Gaye, the grounded optimism of Stevie Wonder, the iconoclasm of Thelonious Monk and the swagger of Mannie Fresh.” We Are is out March 19 on Verve Records.

Batiste joined us to talk about the new album and how it marks an awakening of the full extent of his artistry.

You’ve said, “I’m publicly known for some things already, but there’s so much more to know about me. It’s always been there. Now is the time to show the world my full artistry.” What do you mean by that?

Let’s take jazz, for instance: Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, they were 33 or 34 years old. There’s something about the coming of age of a person. At age 33 when I’m making this album, there’s something about that time that makes you who you are. You solidify. Something becomes whole. As an artist, I find that beyond popularity, beyond success, beyond any of those accolades, there’s something that happens to your concept and your vision once you reach a certain point. I think 33 is a good median age. Some people reach that earlier, some people later. But that’s what I mean when I say that this is just the beginning. The time leading up to this is just the cumulative development of me figuring out where the starting point is.

I look at the guest list on the album: Quincy Jones, Mavis Staples, Trombone Shorty, your dad and your granddad. Was the buffet so full that you could just choose anyone, or was it targeted to particular people?

You nailed it. Every track had a very specific intention with the guesting. There were no features just for the sake of features. Nobody on the album, whether it’s a big name or not, is there because they’re a big name. Every single person on this record, I could tell you a story about them that was significant to my personal development. Each of these people had a role in reaching me at a key moment to help me develop into who I am today.

Was that a way of paying it back?

It’s a part of this new phase of my life, beyond just music. It’s not really a part of any marketing campaign or anything. It’s just something that I think will impact people the most when they listen to this music. If your heart is open to it, and your mind is open to it, and your spirit is open to it, listening to this album will be like reading a great novel or watching a movie. You don’t skip chapters, you just absorb it and it will hopefully make you full of inspiration, of a feeling of joy and of not being alone.

For Soul, I loved hearing that you had no concern about presenting jazz to a young generation because this music is so alive and vibrant. It didn’t seem like you had to sell it to anyone. 

I loved that this team at Pixar was so collaborative. Working on the music for Soul and being part of that team was one of the great highlights of my creative life, because it showed me that it’s possible to work with people on the highest level of production and industry and still have values that are rooted in the real thing. The real thing can come through in that environment. To be honest, I had been skeptical of that for many years. I’d been avoidant of signing record deals, of being a part of these kinds of things, because I think the commodification of music and the entertainment industry in general can be detrimental to the artist and the art. But this was something of a beacon. I find that when you reach that authenticity in something, you don’t have to sell it. It helps to market it, of course, but it’s really just about sharing your enthusiasm and your excitement for the real thing. That’s what moved people about this film. That’s why all over the world, people have been moved by it. Because it’s the real thing.

I wonder if after that great experience, you’ve been spoiled for other things that will come after this.

Oh man, I really think about that a lot. It’s raised my standards completely about collaborations and everything like that. It was such a special thing to work with them that I don’t even know if I can go back.

You appear to be a relentless optimist. Has that been challenged over these last few years? How optimistic are you now as we move forward?

I think that my optimism is a spiritual practice that’s rooted in the belief that we’re all divine beings with something unique and special to offer the world. If that’s the truth, then no matter what we’re facing, we always have a way of coming back out of it if we go back to our divine nature rather than the other aspects of our nature. Both are true at the same time. Everything is happening in the world all the time, everywhere — and that’s what makes me optimistic.

One of the new tunes is Cry. Tell me about that song.

Working with my dad is incredible. He’s one of the best bass players in the world. The gravitas of his playing matches so perfectly to this song. It feels like there’s this tradition, this history of Black farm families and Black farm music, that kind of sharecropper blues-folk song that we don’t necessarily associate with folk music and Americana anymore these days. I wanted to reclaim that and put my family lineage — which, if you go back, before the musicians in my family, there’s four generations of farmers in Georgia — into my musical output.

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This interview has been edited and condensed.