Songs of Hope and Persistence by Jon Batiste, Christian McBride, Nicole Mitchell and More

Jun 14, 2020

Jon Batiste, “WE ARE”

Last Friday, pianist and Late Show bandleader Jon Batiste led his second protest march under the banner “WE ARE,” moving the action from Manhattan to Brooklyn. There was one more significant development: hours before the scheduled march, Verve released a single by the same name, with lyrics intended partly to provoke but mainly to inspire.

“WE ARE” features Batiste on vocals and piano, alongside compatriots Cory Wong and Nate Smith as well as  the voices of Gospel Soul Children, and the St. Augustine High School Marching 100. (The marching band comes in just before the three-minute mark.) The chorus, which Batiste also used in a call-and-response chant at his marches, consists of the dual refrains “We are the chosen ones” and “We are the golden ones.” 

In an Instagram post, Batiste declared: “The WE ARE artwork and font is a protest poster. It is a resurrection and a reimagining of the ‘I AM A MAN’ protest poster used in the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968.”

He adds: “The Memphis sanitation workers’ strike would win the support of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. — and lead to his assassination less than two months later. My grandfather was an activist around this same time and fought for better working conditions for the postal workers in Louisiana. You’ll hear the voices of my grandfather and my two nephews, too. It’s an amalgamation of my life, used to reflect on the moment we’re in right now.”

Christian McBride Big Band, “Medgar Evers Blues”

Another link to the freedom struggle of the 1960s can be found in a new single by bassist Christian McBride, “Medgar Evers Blues.” For those who may not know, Evers was a civil rights activist and war veteran who died in 1963 at the hands of a white supremacist in Mississippi. (Friday was the anniversary of his death.)

The song was composed by guitarist Mark Whitfield, who introduced it on his 1990 debut album, The Marksman. Whitfield is featured on the melody in this new version, the second single from a forthcoming album by the Christian McBride Big Band. Both McBride and Whitfield were part of a wave of so-called Young Lions in the early 1990s — and so too was organist Joey DeFrancesco, who joins them in the rhythm section along with drummer Quincy Phillips.

For Jimmy, Wes and Oliver will be released on Mack Avenue Records on Sept. 25; preorder here.

Nicole Mitchell and Lisa E. Harris, “Ownness”

Flutist Nicole Mitchell has worked meaningfully before with the visionary ideas of science fiction author Octavia E. Butler, and on EarthSeed — due out June 26 on FPE Records — she carries that inspiration farther onward. Her chief collaborator here is operatic composer Lisa E. Harris, who shares Mitchell’s convictions about social activism, and the ways that different art forms can speak to one another.

As on Mitchell’s previous Butler tribute, Xenogenesis Suite, this album features the Black Earth Ensemble, which includes Tomeka Reid on cello and Avreeayl Ra on percussion. Also featured is Ben LaMar Gay on trumpet and electronics. The spoken texts pay tribute to Butler, and in particular her novels Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents — which, as Abby Aguirre recently suggested in The New Yorker, are at least as chillingly prescient about our political moment as 1984.

EarthSeed will be released on June 26 on FPE Records; preorder here.

Arturo O’Farrill and The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra, “Four Questions (Featuring Dr. Cornel West)”

If you’ve been watching CNN lately — or watching highlights after the fact — then you may have heard some cogent commentary by social critic and progressive provocateur Cornel West. As it happens. Dr. West also features in an album released this spring: Four Questions, the latest opus by Arturo O’Farrill and The Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra. The recitation in the sprawling title track invokes a historic legacy of oppression, with an undercurrent of defiant resilience.

“Four Questions” is named after the essential themes in The Souls of Black Folk, by W.E.B. Du Bois. There’s a delirious muchness to the piece, befitting Dr. West’s oratorical style: it touches on modern Afro-Latin big band styles, Harlem stride piano, even a mournful spiritual. Early in the going, Dr. West reflects on 400 years of oppression, and poses a question tinged with pride: “What is it about these people? / In the face of so much hatred, dishing out such love / In the face of so much un-justice, teaching the world so much about justice.”

Four Questions is out now on Zoho Music.

Micah Thomas, “Tornado”

Finally, a piece of music that bears a somewhat more oblique connection to the theme at hand. Micah Thomas is an astute, preternaturally composed young pianist who has been garnering acclaim on the scene in New York. (You may recall that he surfaced twice in a recent Take Five.) Still enrolled at Juillard, Thomas is about to release his debut album, Tide, which seems sure to broaden his base of admirers. It has already elicited a rave in The New York Review of Books, courtesy of Adam Shatz.


“Tornado,” the album’s opening track, is aptly named; its rhythmic and harmonic energies seem to move in a breathless gyre. (Shatz rightly name-checks the Chick Corea Trio album Now He Sings, Now He Sobs.) Strikingly, Thomas chose to make his first full artistic statement a live recording, made last year at The Kitano with bassist Dean Torrey and drummer Kyle Benford. They perform the album as a suite, breezing through Thomas’ compositions with youthful bravura but also an impressive sense of pace and scale.

In a press statement, Thomas reflects on the fact that his album is releasing during a time of livestreams and social distancing. “Maybe if there is a concrete thing I would like people to take away from this album specifically right now,” he says, “it’s how invaluable it is for jazz that people play together in the same room for an audience. I hope you can feel it on this record. We can’t lose that. We can give it up for a while, but not forever.”

Tide will be released on Friday; preorder here.