When the world's your stage, can an album capture the feeling?
Around the midpoint of Jon Batiste's triumphal headlining set at the Newport Jazz Festival earlier this month — just after a runaway gospel rave-up on his song "I Need You" — the man called in reinforcements. "My brother, Louis Cato!" Batiste yelped from the piano bench, indicating the slim, hooded figure who'd just hopped onstage with a mic in hand, like a scat-singing ninja assassin. The musical hookup between them was loose and breezy, approaching jubilation as Batiste steered his big band into a cover of Ray Charles' "(Night Time Is) The Right Time," complete with rafters-raising call and response.
Batiste, lanky and loud in a fire-engine-red suit, and Cato, catlike in all black, shared this collegial Newport moment the way they've shared a rare distinction — as the only two full-time bandleaders on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. (Cato, an essential member of the show's house band, took over after Batiste left the post last summer.) It takes a special kind of musician to maintain the everyday balancing act of flexibility, hospitality, magnetism and discipline required of that role. And as riveting live performers — on any stage, not just the one at the Ed Sullivan Theater — Batiste and Cato make it seem natural, if not exactly easy.
Both artists released new studio albums in the last couple of weeks: Cato's second solo effort, Reflections, dropped on Aug. 11, and Batiste's latest, World Music Radio, arrived last Friday. Each album has been carefully wrought, with flashes of inspiration and a high level of craft. Each is also a reminder of what gets lost when a musical dynamo tries to consolidate their billowing talent in a stable unit, like a genie squeezing back into a lamp. In different ways, these two albums show what can happen when the solicitous pursuit of an audience — and on some level, a playing field — drives an artist to misjudge the assignment, along with their own strengths.
Batiste's is the bigger production by far, and the one shouldering the heaviest expectations. World Music Radio marks his first full-length release since WE ARE, which upset a field of nominees that included Billie Eilish, Taylor Swift, Olivia Rodrigo and H.E.R. to win album of the year at the 2022 Grammy Awards. What registered then as a genuinely kaleidoscopic musical worldview — a natural extension of Batiste's unruly, ecstatic street view — has now succumbed to a grander, blander vision of pop utopianism.
There's a concept at play on World Music Radio. As the title suggests, it envisions Batiste as the disc jockey of an all-night global broadcast, complete with call-in request line. Dial that number, which naturally begins with 504, the area code of Batiste's native New Orleans, and you'll hear the album's opening track: a staticky aircheck of his sign-on as an intergalactic DJ named Billy Bob Bo Bob. This framing device gives Batiste a way to break the fourth wall, speaking directly to his listener. "Love ya even if I don't know ya," he mutters in "Goodbye, Billy Bob," making an unconditional vow feel like a motor reflex.
Batiste isn't the first jazz-trained musician of his generation to look to the radio dial for a metaphor as he courts a mainstream audience. Just over a decade ago, pianist Robert Glasper made a point of calling his R&B and hip-hop crossover project Black Radio — the first in a series of albums that established a cultural footprint beyond their Grammy awards. That same year, 2012, bassist and singer esperanza spalding released an album that she titled Radio Music Society, telling NPR at the time that "The benefit of the radio is, something beyond your realm of knowledge can surprise you, can enter your realm of knowledge."
What's puzzling is why Batiste, who has years of experience in a broadcast medium, would opt for such a homogenizing form of pop expression with his conceptual radio show. World Music Radio feels like a global bazaar co-opted by corporate ownership: its guest list includes artists like the Nigerian singer Fireboy DML and the Catalan vocalist and trombonist Rita Payés, but the more emblematic collaboration is a brand partnership with Coca-Cola, which released a single from the album, "Be Who You Are (Real Magic)," as part of its Coke Studio™ global music platform. The song — a dancehall mashup involving the K-pop girl group NewJeans, Atlanta rapper JID, British singer-songwriter Cat Burns and Colombian singer Camilo — strikes a sentimental chord much like the old "Buy the World a Coke" ad campaign.
Batiste's lyrics, which default toward all-purpose uplift, don't help him transcend this generic air. Even "Butterfly," his most touching ballad, basks in the sense memory of Paul McCartney's "Blackbird." His collaboration with Lil Wayne should be an earthy triumph — in the manner of his recent guest turn with another New Orleans rap icon, Juvenile, at the Tiny Desk — but "Uneasy" deploys them over a beat evoking factory settings, with a fumbling guitar solo for good measure. ("Life Lesson," a collaboration with Lana Del Rey, has more of an emotional center, but comes tacked on to the end of the album; it's both a standout and an afterthought.)
Throughout World Music Radio, Batiste's core message of inclusivity slips all too easily into a conformist key. "We are born the same," he sings in "Worship," over a churchly hum of synthesizers. "Return to that place." As a lyric on an album, that call toward sameness rings hollow, ignoring the real distinctions that make every listener an individual. Batiste's magical power as a performer, on the other hand, is imparting a natural sense of belonging. He did this with "Worship" at the Newport Jazz Festival, stretching its wordless house-music refrain — "La da da-da, da-da, da-da" — into a delirious extended sing-along. The beauty of the massed audience in that moment wasn't its homogeneity, but rather its blissful unity of purpose.
While Batiste came to Newport as a returning hero — a headliner during both Folk and Jazz events, just as he'd been in 2015 — Cato was making his debut. In a rousing afternoon set, he was backed by some of the musical aces who, up until the Writers Guild of America strike, were his regular partners on The Late Show. (Taking advantage of the talent on the ground at the festival, he also featured a distinguished guest, Hammond B-3 organist Larry Goldings.) As a singer, Cato favors the smooth, strong delivery of an acoustic soul artist; he can suggest a millennial Donny Hathaway or an extension of early Maxwell. He's an extremely gifted guitarist — on a song called "Good Enough," his solo built toward the same unabashed elation that has been a calling card for John Mayer — and his instinct as a bandleader is unerring.
Cato is also a songwriter, in a modest but tactile fashion: The songs in his Newport set, most of which appear on Reflections, struck an unforced middle ground between introspection and exhortation, fully conversant in our modern lexicon of therapy. "I was too scared to face my own fears," he sang on the title track, over an Isley Brothers groove, "and I could see them in her." His plainspoken emotional clarity made it only natural to hear him singing "Jealous Guy," in an arrangement that evoked Hathaway's classic treatment of the John Lennon song.
On the album, Cato plays every instrument, overdubbing himself into a one-man Wrecking Crew. (He does the same thing, to popular effect, in his #CatoCovers Instagram series.) That self-containment serves the songs and his versatility, but also imparts a cloistered feeling. The best moments in his Newport performance were all about a mutual exchange of energies, and the way he marshaled them. He's such a galvanic and generous presence onstage that you can see why he's found success as a bandleader on The Late Show. But it's an awkward truth that his Newport set reached its undeniable apex with the finale — a thrillingly exuberant cover of "Move On Up," the Curtis Mayfield anthem. Cato will need to find ways of reaching similar heights with his own music, if he has any chance of leveling up himself.
For Batiste, the open question is whether celebrity and pop-cultural currency can nourish rather than stifle his creative idiosyncrasies — all the euphoric, uncontainable, irresistible energies that tumbled out into the crowd at Newport. The too-muchness of World Music Radio is of another sort; as a musical product it's both overwrought and underfed. At the close of "Be Who You Are," Batiste sings "We can only be who we are." The phrase, with its incidental echo of WE ARE, comes across as an affirmation, but it's also a standard to be met.
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