Fifteen years ago, Jon Batiste visited Spain for the first time with Cassandra Wilson’s band. Back then, he was just a very promising jazz musician: a 21-year-old pianist with an illustrious surname for those familiar with the lineage of the jazz tradition in his native New Orleans. While unknown to most, his immense talent shined through every time he played. Today, Batiste, 36, is much more than a brilliant musician. He has become something that no jazzman, no matter how talented, aspires to be: a superstar.
Over the past decade, Batiste has gone from merely making a living and self-producing his own albums to achieving the major accomplishments that have led him to where he is today: appearing in some episodes of the series Treme, to his band Stay Human becoming the house band on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, signing with the Verve label and growing album by album, to finally rising to stardom with his participation in the Pixar film Soul and releasing his album We Are, a colossal collection of African American influences, from jazz to soul to hip hop. In addition to winning an Oscar and a Golden Globe for the Soul soundtrack, last year Batiste garnered a total of 11 Grammy nominations and won five awards, including an extremely important and representative one: Album of the Year for We Are, beating out pop music giants like Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift and Justin Bieber.
At this point, it is clear that Batiste is no longer simply a brilliant jazz musician, but a crossover artist who draws from all kinds of music and appeals to mass audiences. That much is apparent in his new album, World Music Radio (to be released on August 18); his new work represents a major leap toward global pop, bolstered by a contemporary, radio-friendly sound but without renouncing his artistic vision and concept, as the artist tells EL PAÍS by video call: “I have always tried to take everything I know and [all] that has inspired me, and create a personal version that synthesizes it all into something new. But if we just talk about music, that’s not the whole story, because my goal is to transmit what I do as a unit that continues to grow and evolve to be part of contemporary culture. This is what I think I’m naturally good at, along with the place I occupy in the culture, because I have the ability to do it authentically and I love doing it.”
Despite a certain esoteric air, Batiste certainly had the ability to do just that. Getting to where he is today was not a matter of talent, luck, or pushing the right buttons in his career, but rather a fine-tuned combination of all those factors. We could say that Batiste always had it all, but it is undeniable that the place and time in which he grew up played a big role: “My evolution begins with the reality that I was born into a musical family in New Orleans, but also with the fact that my first musical influences were video game music and Bach, when I started studying classical piano. Aside from that, later I also studied with four veterans of contemporary jazz and the New Orleans avant-garde: Ellis Marsalis, Alvin Batiste, Kidd Jordan and Clyde Kerr Jr.” By the time he was 12 years old, Batiste was involved in all these musical fields, in addition to “listening to everything that was playing on the radio: soul music and rap artists like Juvenile, Lil Wayne, Mannie Fresh, Master P...”
In that environment, one might reasonably think that Batiste was going to outgrow jazz sooner or later, and that is why an album as varied as We Are — which is full of Afro-American influences of all kinds, both modern and traditional at once — was the crystallization of all the music with which he grew up. However, the stylistic leap to World Music Radio is overwhelming; listening to it, it is hard not to think of a clear commercial yearning that has more to do with marketing than with music. According to Batiste, the album’s background is creative, alluding to the matter of the means at his disposal: “My 2013 album, Social Music, tried to be what World Music Radio is today, but it wasn’t yet where it needed to be then. For me, it’s like the Godfather movies: We Are would be like the first one in the franchise, which nobody knew was going to become what it ended up being, and it underwent a lot of challenges during production. When it was hugely successful, there was a big budget available to make the sequel, and in that sense World Music Radio is like The Godfather Part II. My artistic vision hasn’t changed; it’s just evolved since 2013, with the concept that Social Music represented.”
In addition to the concept, the list of guest collaborators on World Music Radio perfectly reflects Batiste’s global aspirations. The list of musicians is so varied that he even brings together rapper J.I.D, K-pop stars New Jeans and Colombian singer-songwriter Camilo on the same track. Given that combination, it could have been hit or miss. There’s also the commercial interest that hovers over the album, although Batiste emphasizes his strong artistic direction: “I have made all the creative decisions. It is a conceptual album, very narrative, and I wanted to select each collaboration like one would cast a film. Until I created and structured the album, I didn’t know who I needed on each track. There are things that are a long time coming: I thought it would be amazing to invite Kenny G, whom I’ve known for a long time, to play the musical manifestation of the flight of a butterfly.”
Other collaborations came about unintentionally, such as his work with Lana Del Rey (with whom Batiste had already performed on Candy Necklace, one of the tracks on her latest album): “Producer Rick Rubin invited me to his Shangri-La studios in Malibu for the first month of recording, and musicians, producers, friends were passing through the whole time... Life Lesson was recorded in those sessions; [the song] was not really part of the narrative of the album, which is why it appears at the end. But while it’s not integrated into the concept, the song is harmonized with the rest of the album because it came out of the same [recording] sessions.”
Another surprising collaboration is the one with Catalan Rita Payés; how did Batiste hear about her, given that she is not as well-known as the rest of the collaborators? “Rita is an incredible singer and trombonist. I didn’t know her, but my executive producer, Ryan Lynn, told me I had to listen to her, and as soon as I did it was clear to me: she was perfect!”
There is no doubt that Batiste and his music have evolved. While the new album will prove too disruptive for some of his fans, the artist is clear that he is right where he wants to be. For the first time in his professional career, after leaving television last year, he is focused entirely on his own music: “Until now, I have never toured with my own projects or recorded any of my albums without having major obligations at the same time... The three years between the time I graduated until I started working in television, I was broke, trying to keep a band afloat and get some money to record an album in the New York subway. From there, I went on to do TV for seven years straight, while playing over 200 gigs a year, working on soundtracks, and producing my own albums at the same time. So, leaving television and concentrating on my work is quite a change, and I’m going to take advantage of it.”
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition