Pillbox

Jon Batiste, Grammys Golden Boy

After a long day of being a teenager and listening to the same indie songs with the same drum beats and the same untrained vocals, Jon Batiste’s "WE ARE" wasn’t just a breath of fresh air. It was an oxygen tank. I’d heard of Batiste and heard a couple of pieces off the album, but hearing the whole thing together made a part of me come alive that I didn’t know was dead. Something about it reminded me of my own concept of “real” music. It was big band and it was soft jazz and it was classical and it was gospel and it was serious and original but also a perfect 2021-style callback to the 1960’s and 70’s eras of black artists.

"WE ARE" was this year’s Grammy-award winner for Album of the Year, but the artist and songs from the album were nominated for an overall total of 11 awards — the most of any artist at the Grammys this year. Batiste already made headlines this year as well, with an Oscar for his work on “Soul.” While working for The Atlantic, the National Jazz Museum, his own projects, and playing on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” with his band Stay Human, Batiste has redefined what it means to be a musician on today’s stages.

"I don't even think genre exists," the Juilliard-educated artist told the Recording Academy. Truly, his backgrounds as a classically trained pianist as well as a drummer for his family’s funk-soul band are equally apparent in much of his work, with "WE ARE" being no exception. Batiste is what one might call a musician's musician, with his focus solely on the work and the vibes. He wrote and performed the majority of "WE ARE," including instrumentals. "What's deep is that God gave us 12 notes. It's the same 12 notes Duke Ellington had, Bach had. It's the same 12 Nina Simone (had)," he proclaimed while accepting his Oscar last month.

Whatever it is about Batiste — his education, his background, or his personal values — that make his music award-winning was shown off in a special way on "WE ARE." The songs speak from a level that is somehow deeply personal and yet so simple. Tracks like “CRY”, “SING”, and “SHOW ME THE WAY” shed light on emotional experiences that are so succinct and general that they can’t help but be relatable. “SHOW ME THE WAY” in particular talks about listening to your favorite music to help get you through hard times, something almost all of us do. Yet anyone who knows Batiste’s story knows that these simple songs might not be so simple, as his wife Suleika Jaouad has been battling leukemia for a number of years.

Besides its stunning emotional scale, "WE ARE" amazes in its diverse musical range, which includes rap on “WATCHUTALKINBOUT," classical piano on “MOVEMENT 11," and a surprisingly musical theater feel on a few of the early songs. Like any good, modern album, it has one of those 20 or 30 second tracks with a vocal snippet about some deep truth about life. It has a poppy Target-commercial hit, “FREEDOM” which also hints at notes of social and racial commentary, similarly to the title track “WE ARE” (opening line, “The ghetto is full of stars”). In short, "WE ARE," like Batiste himself, has it all, even coming-of-age songs with “ADULTHOOD” and “BOY HOOD.”

Like with any media award show, people will speculate about how decisions are made behind the scenes of the Grammys. The Album of the Year category hosted a wide selection of star nominees, from Tony Bennet to Kanye West to Lil Nas X. Considering its lack of media coverage, "WE ARE" seemed like an unlikely pick for the award, but I think the win was not only well deserved, but needed. Batiste is a black composer with a strong repertoire, and the album offered so much in the way of talent that some others, while popular, might not have. The award spurred a surge of listeners that might not otherwise have listened to this whimsical, jazz motivated, throwback record.

[End note: I know that only Taylor Swift really talks about this kind of stuff, but I couldn’t help but notice an interesting anomaly in my research on Batiste. He received 11 Grammy nominations this year. He switched from drums to piano — his main instrument and the impetus for his interest in composing — when he was 11. The seventh track on "WE ARE" is called “MOVEMENT 11’”.]