Why the Grammys couldn’t resist Jon Batiste
Some of the music on “We Are” draws its acoustic-funk aesthetic from the 1960s, but other parts hark back to the 1990s, that pre-9/11 moment when Keb Mo’ was becoming a Grammy favorite, and Starbucks curated albums summarizing the entire genre have infiltrated parental CD players everywhere. “Cry,” a single from Batiste’s album that won Best American Roots Performance and Best American Roots Song, harkens back to that era.
It also touches on the present. The first half of “Boy Hood,” his collaboration with Trombone Shorty and PJ Morton, modernizes the trap aesthetic for a meditation on the simple joys of childhood in New Orleans.
Ultimately, Batiste’s music is about feeling good as a collective act. Often that means playing things that will feel familiar and keeping your heart light. On “Freedom,” a horn-driven funk leg that won the Grammy for Best Music Video and was nominated for Record of the Year, Batiste looks like he’s climbed into the cast of an old protest song and created a party anthem instead.
But there is something else to understand before you can have Batiste: he comes from a city where time and space remain somewhat broken down, and where a black instrumental tradition that died out 50 years ago in the most other parts of the country continues. This tradition is based on gathering and dancing, and therefore has perhaps the least complicated relationship to musical enjoyment of any lifestyle in this country, even in spite of the increasingly desperate conditions to which face those who live there.
Batiste’s vibe might sound sweet to someone outside of New Orleans, especially if you haven’t walked Frenchmen Street with a plastic cup in hand, or found your way into a marching band show at Celebration Hall on a weeknight, or if you’ve been infected by the Neville Brothers’ Caribbean-influenced funk on a spring afternoon at JazzFest. Listen to the records Batiste’s New Orleans peers are releasing these days – Trombone Shorty, PJ Morton and Tank and the Bangas, for a few, following in the footsteps of the Nevilles, Dr John and Professor Longhair – and you’ll find a similar strain of happy funk making you feel good. Challenge your ironic digital brain to love it back. See if you can handle it.
Batiste’s 11 nominations on Sunday — the most of any artist — hit categories including R&B, jazz, roots music, film music (for his work on the Pixar film “Soul”) and classical music. . What this tells you is that supporting a young jazz musician these days means committing to something broader than any genre, even if relatively traditionalist, proud to stand in the Shade of Satchmo.