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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

Tracking Jon Batiste's influences on "FREEDOM"

The R&B and jazz virtuoso's artistic voice is shaped by multiple iconic inspirations — including some from his hometown.

Aaaaaaand... exhale. I'm done with my penultimate undergraduate semester.

What a rollercoaster these past four months have been. Between being back in Berkeley, getting back to in-person learning and performance, meeting so many new people and doing so many new things, this semester has felt longer and more intense than any other so far. I enjoyed a lot of it, but I'm also very ready to take a bit of a break from the craziness and head home for a month or so. (Of course, home isn't super far away, so I may very well swing over to Berkeley if I'm needed... but I'll still be on break.)

In looking to soundtrack how I feel after finishing my last final today — one which definitely went better than I expected it would go beforehand — I sought something bright and groovy, but I had a hard time pinpointing what exactly that sound would be. I decided to start looking more into music from the past year, and I ended up focusing R&B because I have hardly explored that genre's more recent sound. What I write about in this space tends to reflect my tastes, and so it makes sense that the only R&B track I've written about from this current decade is Silk Sonic's "Skate." Now motivated to change that, I set out perusing grooves from the past year... and it didn't take me long to latch onto one.

Like "Skate," I hear the song I chose as having a retro sound to it, reflecting my love for 60s and 70s R&B. However, the song also happens to be by an artist who's one of the foremost figures pushing R&B and jazz forward. The artist is singer, keyboardist, and bandleader Jon Batiste, and the infectious song is "FREEDOM," from his 8x Grammy nominated album WE ARE.

When I first listened through "FREEDOM," my first thoughts were twofold: firstly, holy cow, this is amazing; and secondly, man, Jon Batiste is really channeling his inner Marvin Gaye. In moving between soulful crooning and energetic callouts, Batiste's falsetto instantly made me think of Gaye's performances on legendary songs like "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "Got to Give It Up." On second listen, though, I began to also hear more modern influences in his delivery. The largely spoken choruses made me think of multiple eras of Pharrell's work — (co)incidentally including his own energetic release titled "Freedom." Pharrell and others of his era obviously also took from the past in informing their own styles, but I hear those two strands separately being channelled by Batiste here. Yet through all of it he maintains his own voice through the energy he brings to the track.

As much as I hear those aforementioned artists, though, I hear "FREEDOM" even more as an exuberant celebration of Batiste's hometown of New Orleans wrapped in modern R&B production. Between the flavor I get from the song's horn section and the setting of the video, it's clear that Batiste is following in the tradition of NOLA jazz and second lines, the latter of which is further represented in the video by the marching band. When Batiste sings about hearing a song that "takes me back," this is what he's being taken back to: there's so much life in and around music in New Orleans, something that always makes you want to dance, and he expertly captures it in both his sound and in his video.

I also hear some of a more recent New Orleans sound (compared to jazz and R&B) in the rap-like break — "I'm stuck to the dance floor with the, with the whole tape," etc. Even with the instrumentation staying the same in this section, Batiste's words make me hear the section as a homage to bounce music. A thoroughly New Orleans strand of hip hop which has spread throughout the United States and the world in the past couple decades, bounce music is driven in part by repetitive, dance-friendly and sometimes dance-instructive chants. Lo and behold, Batiste's words in the section perfectly fit that description. Between his talk of shaking and his callouts for the listener(s) to "wobble" and "make it break," he's putting his own spin on bounce by combining its signature lyrical patterns with his own smooth R&B sound.

I love being able to hear the various influences that go into a new track, because it can reveal so much about the piece as well as the artist. In the case of "FREEDOM," taking it apart speaks to Jon Batiste's inspirations from his own musical life as well as the influence of his hometown. Doing these sorts of breakdowns and examinations reminds me that, even when we put these creators on a pedestal, they remain just as human as us, and they're artistically shaped by their own experiences just as we are. As I look to find my own musical voice and dive more into writing and production, keeping that in mind is really important in motivating me to follow my dreams. I have all sorts of inspirations and muses, so now I need to examine those and figure out how I can channel them into my creative process — and hopefully I can make progress toward that endeavor during this winter break.


Postscript — bounce: New Orleans bounce music, from which Batiste seems to have take inspiration on "FREEDOM," is awesome. To learn more about its origins and evolution, check out this video by Complex News and the various musical examples within it:


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