Louisiana keyboardist and late-night talk show bandleader Jon Batiste was famous for a signature brand of fussy funk before ever coming to television. Now, he must act as an entertainer and collaborator (to host Stephen Colbert) as well as arranger/orchestrator. The needs of guests and their themes (Harrison Ford, Star Wars) are as much a part of his clever aesthetic as his star-clustered jazz and sedate swamp soul have been through his career. With Hollywood Africans and producer T Bone Burnett, however, Batiste takes his usually musky music into a spare, dynamic-rich place where flash meets the subtly subdued, and aged concepts of the "black entertainer" are turned on their head.
With that in mind — and named for a 1983 Basquiat painting — Batiste's piano-heavy album spins the happy-go-lucky legend of a smiling Louis Armstrong (a remodel of Satchmo's "What a Wonderful World") into a tensely elegiac tone poem with fragrant hints of Stevie Wonder's "Black Orchid" thrown in. Other usually chipper moments — also guided by Batiste's Satie-meets-Jelly Roll Morton-influenced sound — like the New Orleans traditional "St. James Infirmary Blues" get the feel of the weight of the world on their shoulders. Yet it's Batiste's handsome self-penned and sung ballads such as "Mr. Buddy," and the classical "Don't Stop" that are most impressive, especially during the stately soul of the latter when Batiste leans on some old-fashioned Orleans Parish stride piano. — A.D. Amorosi
Usher & Zaytoven
The interminable wait for 2016's Hard II Love found Usher discarding such A-list material as 2014's excellent "Good Kisser," so streamlining his approach is a good look for the now-40-year-old R&B idol. His ninth album, A, appeared within a day of its surprise announcement, and it's just eight songs entirely produced by Migos/Future whisperer Zaytoven, whose up-to-date trap'n'B style is best consumed in under 30 minutes anyway (you listening, Migos?). After a too-typical Future duet for an opener, A is all aces, with the proudly Young Thug-influenced "Ye-la-le-le-la-la-le-le-le" hook of "Ata" flowing into the sexy sparseness of "Peace Sign" and "You Decide," which sounds like a Black Panther soundtrack deep cut gone a bit reggae. The gorgeous but lurid "Birthday" caps off one of the strongest sequences in Usher's catalog, so why does A still feel meaningless in its full effect? Maybe because 2012's thrilling Looking 4 Myself promised more innovations than just chasing the current sounds again, but this guy was also once Beyoncé's peer. — Dan Weiss
Wouldn't It Be Great
(Sony Legacy **** ½)
On "Ain't No Time to Go," one of the new self-penned songs on her latest album, Loretta Lynn confesses, "I ain't as strong as you think I am." From a musical standpoint, the evidence on Wouldn't It Be Great is solidly to the contrary. The 86-year-old country legend sounds as vital as ever.
Through newly recorded versions of new and old originals (including her signature "Coal Miner's Daughter") and one traditional number, Lynn presents the full dimension of her indomitable personality and underscores what a great writer she has been across the decades.
She can be achingly tender and vulnerable as she is on the new "I'm Dying for Someone to Live For" ("The love of my life is long gone") and the title song, an '80s gem that she also revived in the '90s with Dolly Parton and Tammy Wynette. But she can also still be a real spitfire: The new "Ruby's Stool" exudes all the feistiness of, well, her first No. 1 hit, "Don't Come Home A-Drinking," which is also reprised here.