It hasn’t quite been a full year since Jon Batiste left “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” on the heels of winning five Grammy Awards, among them album of the year.
That was for “We Are,” which garnered the bulk of his 11 nominations across a range of genres. Batiste had already shared the best original score Oscar the year before, for the animated feature film “Soul.”
Now, as summer hurtles toward autumn, Batiste’s new concept album, “World Music Radio,” is set to drop on Aug. 18. The album’s second single, “Drink Water,” on which Batiste is joined by multi-instrumentalist/co-executive producer Jon Bellion and Nigerian vocalist Fireboy DML, was released Wednesday; the first, “Calling Your Name,” featured Batiste wielding his melodica and came out last month.
Of more specifically local import, Batiste will also be headlining consecutive Saturdays at the Newport Folk Festival (July 29) and the Newport Jazz Festival (Aug. 5). The new album is being touted on both festival websites, but how much emphasis it will receive on the Newport stages remains to be determined.
“I haven’t really curated the shows yet,” admits Batiste, reached via Zoom in Switzerland, where the previous night he’d performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival. “You’ll get some of the new album material for sure. That’s just the zone I’m in, obviously. But it will be one of a kind for each performance.”
He mentions the previous time he performed at both Newport festivals, in 2018, and the many artists — Brittany Howard, Leon Bridges, Kristy Lee, and Mavis Staples among them — who joined him for his set at that year’s folk festival.
“Must have been 20 different acts that I had onstage to close the folk fest at the finale,” Batiste recalls. “I think I want to do something similar to that. Maybe not as many artists, but definitely have some guests. And maybe some guests from the album: I don’t want to say just yet — too top secret.”
Secret, perhaps, but a reasonable guess is that Lana Del Rey will be among them, given that she’s performing at this year’s folk festival and is featured on a “World Music Radio” bonus track. (That’s not to mention Batiste having been featured on two tracks of Del Rey’s March release “Did You Know There’s a Tunnel Under Hollywood Blvd.”)
Which brings us to the new album. Del Rey is among an international array of featured guest artists. Besides Bellion and Fireboy DML, these include Native American vocalists/instrumentalists Native Soul, the young Catalan singer and multi-instrumentalist Rita Payés, Leigh-Anne Pinnock, rapper-singer JID, the South Korean girl group NewJeans, Colombian vocalist Camilo, smooth-jazz icon Kenny G, Lil Wayne, and Michael Batiste, Jon’s father.
Most of the music involved overdubs, with Batiste and fellow multi-instrumentalists Bellion and Tenroc handling most of the work. The exception was the countrified track “Master Power,” recorded with a live band in the studio.
The album’s concept revolves around a Batiste alter-ego, the cosmic DJ/griot Billy Bob Bo Bob, broadcasting a variety of this world’s music into the universe. The resulting album is often simultaneously danceable and profound.
The Lil Wayne tune, “Uneasy,” is a highlight, its title referencing the Big Easy.
“We grew up in the 17th Ward Hollygrove neighborhood [of New Orleans],” notes Batiste. “He’s from there. I grew up there, in part, so there was a real connection to the Big Easy. And also the song itself is speaking about the city, and the feeling of the city being uneasy. There’s a sense of unrest percolating. So I’m working a lot of times, with even the titles but the lyrics for sure, to have two and three meanings at once.”
“Movement 18 (Heroes)” is a piano meditation meant to represent Batiste’s subconscious, with the recorded voices of Quincy Jones, Alvin Batiste, Wayne Shorter, and Duke Ellington dispensing wisdom that Batiste has taken to heart.
“Butterfly” is a gorgeous blend of Batiste’s piano and singing, inspired by both the titular creature and Batiste’s wife, Suleika Jaouad, the ephemeral nature of the butterfly’s story in Batiste’s lyrics symbolizing Jaouad’s ongoing battle with cancer
“That one is thinking about the way that a butterfly is so delicate and beautiful, and the color schemes of a butterfly and their wings create this kaleidoscope of incredible depth and inspiration somehow,” he explains. “The butterfly journey is symbolic. It brings to mind a journey that we all have to face in some form, at some point in our lives — and multiple times.
“So there’s that aspect of it. It’s also a song that was inspired by my wife and her reemergence into the world after having serious treatment for major health issues relating to her having cancer, and coming back into the space and time. She was the inspiration of what that moment meant. I wrote this song from that time. The lyrics are telling the story of someone who’s in a period in their life where they’re coming into a space of ownership of their life. You really can connect to that. The lyrics are speaking on many different levels at once.”
As the track “Raindance” winds down, Batiste, in character as Billy Bob, introduces the song “Be Who You Are,” slyly noting “Everyone else already taken.” The idea is the album’s predominant theme, and leads to some philosophizing over Zoom.
“There isn’t really a way to be human and exist in this plane and not be an original. So it’s less me instructing people and more speaking universal truths,” he says.
Talk turns to the good and bad effects of wearing a metaphorical mask.
“Don’t put the mask on, but also sometimes you have to put the mask on to be comfortable at first expressing the truth,” Batiste explains. “So it’s both. It’s a very complex statement, what we’re talking about. But I like to break things to the simplest form so they’re universal.”
When it’s suggested that for some people, going through life wearing masks in the negative sense may actually be who they are, Batiste chuckles good-naturedly.
“It’s true,” he agrees. “Like some people, exactly. And obviously we all can evolve. But some of us are more evolved than others.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the group Native Soul. It also included an incorrect release date for the album “World Music Radio.”
NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL
At Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I. July 28-30. Sold out, but tickets available on the secondary market. There’s also a waitlist at newportfolk.org/tickets.
NEWPORT JAZZ FESTIVAL
At Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I. Aug. 4-6. Tickets at newportjazz.org.