If something about this weekend’s 66th annual Grammys look familiar to you, credit Jon Batiste and his armful of nominations. Same goes for March 10’s Oscars ceremony.
In the run-up to the 2024 Grammys, the New Orleans native has again bolstered his Technicolor brand of R&B jazz fusion with gospel, hip-hop, dancehall and beyond for his newest release, 2023’s “World Music Radio.” For that, the keyboardist-composer is nominated for song of the year (“Butterfly”), record of the year (“Worship”), album of the year (“World Music Radio”), best jazz performance (“Movement 18′ (Heroes)” and best American roots performance (“Butterfly”). For his sixth nomination this year, Batiste is also Grammy-recognized for his featured appearance on Lana Del Rey’s most recent album, sharing a best pop duo/group performance nomination for “Candy Necklace.”
As far as the March 10 Oscar ceremony, Batiste is represented with a best original song nomination for “It Never Went Away” from his documentary “American Symphony,” a film largely dedicated to his wife, author Suleika Jaouad, their journey from childhood friendship to marriage, and her wrenching health issues including leukemia.
Batiste’s happy siege on this year’s Grammys and Academy Awards is similar to his run at the 64th annual Grammys in 2022 when he was nominated in 11 categories and won five, including a happy upset when album of the year went to 2021’s grooving epic “We Are.” Meanwhile, for the 2020 animated film “Soul,” Batiste and company won the Academy Award for composing music with Trent Reznor and Atticus Rossfor best original score (the “Soul” trio also won a Golden Globe).
Remind him that he’s reliving his recent Grammy and Oscar victories, and an acceptance of his work in a critical and public fashion, and his first word is “Wow.”
“It’s a matter of staying focused and disciplined while following the ideas you had in the first place, because you never know where something’s going to end up,” says Batiste during a mid-afternoon phone call.
“We didn’t know where that film (“American Symphony”) would wind up, or that this album (“World Music Radio”) would make sense to people following an 11-Grammy-nominated, Best Album of the Year record.”
On an even deeper, more personal level, Batiste’s usual upbeat tone lowers but an octave when speaking about his wife’s potential fates. “We didn’t know that my wife would make it to the end of the film or what its end would be, or if there even would be a film given that we didn’t have funding to start it or finish it,” he says. “The position we’re in now is again a testament to that divine spark of inspiration really having a meaning. That’s something you have to trust, even when it doesn’t make sense.”
While he’s never needed the validation of awards, it’s curious to wonder if the success of “We Are” and its sonic universality — after recordings like the grooving gumbo soul of 2005’s “Times in New Orleans,” the free jazz of 2014’s “The Process” with Chad Smith and Bill Laswell and his meditations on the compositions of John Lewis and Thelonious Monk — didn’t open the doors to the multi-flavored “World Music Radio.”
“That may have been a thought, that we were both trying to meet expectations on, and also not be a prisoner of ‘We Are’ at the beginning of the ‘World Music Radio’ process,” says Batiste. “But once the Billy Bob Bo narrative came into play, we knew that we were treading on territory that was outside of the norm.”
Batiste’s introduction of the fictional, interstellar Billy Bob Bo entity and a cosmos-leaping conceptualism to the “inner spine” of “World Music Radio” took that one world into a universe of many different worlds, and offered listeners “something not so easily understood on the surface, and give people something to sink their teeth into,” he says. “With repeated listens, you could discover something new every time.”
And how is Billy Bob Bo, the thematic center of Batiste’s new album, doing at present?
“Billy Bob is somewhere in another galaxy broadcasting ‘World Music Radio’ to some extraterrestrials and recruiting new members into the vibe machine community,” says Batiste with a laugh. “The thing that he did when he came to me was show me the way. I had this album nine months into the process with a vision of unlimited creativity and genre-less music that was experimental, but could listen to, even if I knew nothing about the genres being referenced.”
Batiste knew that such a protean ideal was hard to pull off. But in his mind, Billy Bob Bo gave him hope. “He became my guide, and this epiphany moment with him didn’t really resonate until the last quarter of recording, sequencing the record and adding these interludes and his expressions. Suddenly it was revealed: that is what ‘World Music Radio’ was waiting for. We even refined his narrative by bringing on Wolfgang – the creative agency – to build a script and storyboard as if we were making a movie.”
Batiste mentions that many of the songs on “World Music Radio” predate the music of “We Are,” while several tracks came during the period of time after the “whirlwind” of leaving “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” a CBS network bandleader gig he held for seven years. “The last half of the new album comes from that one month of my creative spark being reignited, that same month at Shangri-La when Lana and I captured ‘Candy Necklace,’ organically, just sitting around the piano.”
“That is one really creative month in the Jon Batiste canon,” says the music-maker in the third person.
This is where “Butterfly” from “World Music Radio” and “It Never Went Away” from the “American Symphony” documentary — both spare piano ballads about his wife, co-written with the legendary Dan Wilson — come into play.
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Considering the intimacy of both “Butterfly” and “It Never Went Away,” ballads that speak, respectively, to the fragility of existence and the ways that love surely outlasts mortality, it’s curious that Batiste would entrust elements of his marriage and storytelling to another writer, longtime hitmaker Dan Wilson (Semisonic, Mitski, Taylor Swift, Dixie Chicks).
“Dan is an incredible collaborator because he’s someone who listens to the intention of the artist, and almost functions as a song therapist,” says Batiste. “We had conversations that lead to discoveries, musical and personal. Things we shared and lived in parallel. Finding that common ground and safe space allowed for those songs to pour out.”
Batiste gets quiet when he notes that “It Never Went Away” had its own “North Star,” given that “American Symphony” director Matthew Heineman came to him the day before their documentary’s premiere at the Telluride Film Festival and wanted a new ending. “We discovered that there needed to be something else visually, and a song that acted as a sonic culmination, and blended into the score and the symphony I had composed and performed.”
Batiste had been writing and playing what he called “lullabies” for his wife, Suleika, during the worst moments of her multiple health scares and continued hospitalizations.
“Butterfly” came from those lullaby home sessions. So did “It Never Went Away.”
“Those songs come from the source of that experience,” Batiste says of their sparse, somnolent arrangement and gentle but stark melodicism — a sound far from his usual funky sonic complexity.
“Lullabies are the simplest form of melody,” he says. “Even the word ‘lull’ speaks to dreams and the subconsciousness, the language of the invisible. Something about that requires meditative simplicity. So from me writing these melodies that filled my wife’s hospital room… that guided the order of these two songs being so simple. You couldn’t take it too far from the source material without losing its feeling.”
Batiste is a spiritually guided man born into a musical, church-going family in New Orleans that just happened to be practicing Catholics. Knowing that he has not lost his religion, I ask the keyboardist-composer about one of “It Never Went Away’s” central lyrics, the line that goes, “When you plan, God laughs / Thought I was hot / Got a detour along the way.”
Looking pragmatically at his married life and the work that both he and his wife have created, Batiste muses, “We have all of these things that we think we’re going to do, and then… both the highs and the lows of the life come in and disrupt that. God was looking at these plans you had made, all these things you envisioned doing, and laughed – not antagonistically, but in the sense of seeing the bigger picture. You get a plan. And then you get a diagnosis, or you get 11 Grammy nominations – those two things came on the same day, mind you. The irony and the polarity of both of those realizations happening at once is so fast and so jarring that it’s humorous. You can think that you are wise as you want, but you can’t outsmart that.”
Batiste recalls a positive letter that Jaouad received right after she published her 2021 autobiography, “Between Two Kingdoms: A Memoir of a Life Interrupted,” a letter that spoke of receiving hope from the author in appreciation of her brilliant and poignant prose. “But you can’t be ‘Princeton’ about your faith was the message behind the letter. You can think you’re smart, but at a certain point, nothing can change the reality of how you’re living; that notion really stuck with both of us.”
Batiste has long referred to his overall sound as “social music,” based on its lively conversational feel and its connection to New Orleans’ convivial scene of music in neighborhood parlors and backyards. That gentle repose works for the sunny, universal funk of “We Are” and “World Music Radio.” But does that term necessarily fit the insular intimacy of “Butterfly” and “It Never Went Away?”
The keyboardist believes that, as artists, there are but two or three ideas that define what one does, and that get refined throughout your creative life. “You remake those across time as you come to have greater understanding,” he says. “Thinking about ‘Hollywood Africans,’ my second album that I did with T Bone Burnett, we went into an empty church in New Orleans, with just a piano and a microphone. That’s one zone of my expression: a home base. The idea of ‘social music’ is yet another zone. The relate to each other more when one becomes a message driven medium, rather than a sonic one.”
Considering that his wife is the centerpiece of both his Grammy-nominated “Butterfly” and his Oscar-nominated “It Never Went Away,” is it possible that Suleika Jaouad would come and get her flowers on stage if her husband won either totem? Or both?
“I was thinking about, who should — if we were so fortunate to win — give the speech,” Batiste says, laughing. “Watch and see. That would be a beautiful thing if she did that. There was so much that we missed out on in the last year including when I hit the Grammys or had some of the performances that I had, she could not be there. This year, however, she is able to attend, so we’re in a happy full-circle moment.”
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