When New Orleans’ legendary musician Henry Butler takes the outdoor stage Saturday evening at the Playboy Jazz Festival at Los Angeles’ Hollywood Bowl, the audience will be asked not so much to listen but to travel through time to the very earliest days of jazz with Butler as your curator and guide.
Butler is a consummate musician, it almost goes without saying. He’s the leading proponent of the New Orleans piano music that was the progenitor for jazz and, arguably r&b and rock ’n’ roll, but also incorporates boogie woogie, blues, Latin sounds, ragtime and even classical. He comes from a lineage of Crescent City grown pianists that include the late James Booker and the great Allen Toussaint and Doctor John.
If you were in New Orleans now, chances you could catch this uniquely American brand of music at local bars Tipitina’s, The Maple Leaf or Snug Harbor.
However, Butler is more than a proponent of this style. He goal is to put the music into context and gives us the narrative behind its origins. On his new album, Henry Butler-Steven Bernstein and the Hot 9: Viper’s Drag, which he’ll feature during his Hollywood Bowl performance, he takes the listener on a journey to the earliest days of jazz and blues with songs by Jelly Roll Morton, Buddy Bolden and others, but then modernizes the tunes. His music collaborator on the record, Steven Bernstein, the forward-thinking Grammy award-winning arranger, will be joining Butler on stage at the Hollywood Bowl with a big band.
“Steve’s got this modern touch in his playing and his arrangements, avant-garde and beyond,” says Butler. Bernstein laughs and shakes his head: “I call Henry a space-traveler/historian.” “Their collaboration is both historically aware and fully prepared to cut loose,” remarked The New York Times in an enthusiastic review of their duo’s recent New Year’s Eve performance at the Jazz Standard in New York.
Throw into the album’s mix veteran producer Joshua Feigenbaum, best known for producing the nationally syndicated radio program King Biscuit Flower Hour, famed for showcasing classic and modern rock bands, and a full-blown Mardi Gras of influences infuses the album.
Take, for example, the album’s title track, “Viper’s Drag,” the iconic jazz song written by Fats Waller. (You know the melody even if you don’t recognize the song title.)
and then contrast it with the way Butler reinterprets it on the snippet of the song that can be heard on this promotional video:
It’s the same melody, of course, but Butler and company replaces the coolness of Waller’s original arrangement with a lively, syncopated sound, complete with horns.
We caught-up with the time trippin’ Butler just before his performance at the Hollywood Bowl and spoke to him about his past, present and future projects.
Monsters and Critics: How did you choose the individual songs on your new album? Let’s start with the title track.
Henry Butler: Well, I actually started listening to Fats Waller because when I was 11 or 12 my mom enrolled me in the Columbia Record Club. That was a thousand years ago when they sent vinyl through the mail. I remember Duke Ellington’s “In My Solitude” was the first to arrive and I instantly could grab the melody. And one day Fats Waller music came through the mail and “Vipers Drag” was on it. Since, then, I always wanted to figure out a way to use the piece and to put my stamp on it. Ultimately, the songs we selected for the album, including the ones of my own that are on it, reflect a balance that we wanted to achieve between the emotional, the intellectual and the historical.
Monsters and Critics:You had played in concert with Steven Bernstein, previously, but what was it like to record music with him and a big band?
Henry Butler: This is my first time working with a 10-piece band in the studio and I have to say, it was a lot of fun. Working with an arranger as talented and historically knowledgeable as Steven made it even more fun! Take for example, how we worked on “Viper’s Drag.” It was composed as a solo piece for piano but we added arrangements for horns and then if you listen carefully, you can even hear some blues flavor that we’ve added to the famous vamp.
Monsters and Critics: Was there anything unexpected that happened during the recording sessions?
Henry Butler: That’s the thing. If you have enough people working within the project who understand the music emotionally in the same way, anything unexpected that arises just adds to the flavor.
Monsters and Critics: What’s next for Henry Butler?
Henry Butler: I’m in that wonderful stage with a few projects where I’m just talking about them. Soon, one of them will take shape first and off we’ll go.