Henry Butler
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Henry Butler

New Orleans, Louisiana, United States | INDIE

New Orleans, Louisiana, United States | INDIE
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You kids may not be aware of this, but there was a time when the term R&B stood for "rhythm and blues," and described a style of music that was readily distinguishable from the pop music mainstream. Today it seems as if R&B has become a term that describes the race of the performer more than it does the music itself. (A Britney Spears album gets filed under "Rock and Pop," whereas if Beyonce were to make the same album it would be filed under "R&B" or "Soul/Hip Hop.") Henry Butler comes from a different time and place, and his music is R&B in the old sense — it rocks, it rolls, it struts, it features the piano prominently, and it's very much based in the blues and the Creole musical traditions of his native New Orleans. Despite one or two minor missteps, Homeland is a hoot and a joy all the way through, from the touchingly sentimental "Way We Loved" through the slightly hokey "Hey Little Girl" right up to the sweet ode to Professor Longhair that ends the program. The album's highlight is a fantastic adaptation of the New Orleans classic "Iko Iko". Highly recommended overall. - www.allmusic.com


Talk about eclectic.

Of all the varied and distinct experiences available each year at Jazz Fest, none stand out as uniquely comprehensive as pianist, singer and composer Henry Butler.

At the drop of a hat, Butler can take off on an improvisational rampage through the canon of African-American and European music, his playing colored by a deliberate and venturesome passion and complemented perfectly by awe-inspiring technique, the whole expressed through an internal logic at once intuitive and deeply philosophical.

And that's just on his warm-up intro.

Raised in the Calliope housing project and educated at the Louisiana School for the Blind, Southern University, and Michigan State University, Butler's deep involvement with the legacy of African-American music, admirable facility, and signature style establish him securely as the latest in a long line of New Orleans piano "professors" stretching back at least to Jelly Roll Morton.

More than anything, it is the ability and willingness to traverse genres knowledgeably and creatively, based on a solid theoretical grounding, that sets Butler apart and fuels his fabulous flights of solo improvisation, where the careful listener might hear Willie "The Lion" Smith and Antonin Dvorak, say, discussing the influence of the blues in the compositions of Thelonious Monk.

An established recording artist with five releases to his credit, Butler earned considerable respect for last year's For All Seasons on Atlantic Jazz. In typical fashion, he's switched labels and genres with the current CD Blues After Sunset on Black Top.

Drawn instinctively to musical experience as a youngster, Butler began performing professionally at the age of 14 and continued while attending school, insisting on taking advantage of whatever opportunities for formal education were available to him. In college and graduate school, he essentially pursued a double major by taking classical European vocal training and, at the same time, apprenticing himself, under the tutelage of Southern University professor and clarinet master Alvin Batiste, to a succession of professional jazz pianists.

But what, exactly, did each of those experiences teach him? OffBeat sat down with Butler to find out the answers, straight from the source.

The church, the 'hood, and the legacy
"I always remember liking music," Butler says reflectively in his warm, expansive baritone, "feeling a strong sense of identity with anything musical. When I was little, before we moved from Third St. near Dryades to the projects, there always were bands practicing in someone's house or playing in a bar. You'd just hear 'em from the street. And I could always tell the good players from the others. That's something I just don't know how to explain, especially for a four-year-old.

"Most of the music I heard during those years, though, was religious music. My mom was real strong in the church and she always took my brother and me to what they called then, and I guess they still call now, church musicals, where some of the different choirs would get together, and they would have invited guests and that sort of thing.

"One of our neighbors had a piano, and I remember I would go over there, but I wouldn't just bang on it, like most kids. I would try to find melodies. I had no idea what middle C was, I just knew that if I played this note and if I kept searching I might find another note that would go with it. I was always looking to find things that made sense to me, that made me feel I was making something.

"My mom, fortunately, was able to send me to the Louisiana School for the Blind in Baton Rouge, and I had a second cousin in Baton Rouge, his name was Willie Anderson, and he'd come see me several times a week and bring me all kinds of goodies. He was really wonderful. He was a country fellow, really warm, and kind of like a father or grandfather figure to me. He was a very good stride pianist, too, but I didn't hear him play until I was almost in junior high school. I'd never really paid much attention to stride piano before that, but I really admired what he did. It was so precise."

You got to know the score
"Around that time, I remember hanging around the band teacher a lot. I was always telling him he should give me this to do or that to do. So one morning, he came in and told me to arrange two pieces, for two trombones and a piano, and have them ready by that afternoon. There wasn't anything unusual about what I did, but I remember people being pretty amazed, I guess, that I could come up with something in so short a time.

"When I was a junior in high school I switched my major from piano to voice. There were very few braille scores available back then for piano and other keyboard instruments, and there still aren't enough now. Also, because of the logistics of transposing braille scores, it was just taking me too long to learn piano music.

"And, of course, there were very few teachers who knew - Offbeat Magazine


"... Butler plays New Orleans rum-house piano with a rolling thunder that sounds like he's channeling Professor Longhair and McCoy Tyner in each hand." - On The Edge


"...Henry Butler is arguably the greatest living proponent of the classic New Orleans piano tradition, playing an amalgam of boogie-woogie, jazz, blues and classical in the lineage of Professor Longhair, James Booker, Tuts Washington, Allen Toussaint and countless other emperors of the ivories..."

- CMJ


"...It's not an exaggeration to say Butler is a piano genius who has yet to be discovered by the masses. His recordings demonstrate that he can do it all: he writes his own songs, does his own arrangements of classic tunes by Professor Longhair and others, and can play with as much passion as a soloist as he can with a band..."

- All Music Guide


"Henry Butler's name is not a household word, but over the last decade, he has established himself as the finest all-around pianist in New Orleans, a city known for it's piano masters. Butler is equally at home in jazz, blues or R&B, and has toured with Verve Big Bands as well as being an acclaimed club performer in his own right..."

- Jazz Times


Discography

Fivin’ Around - 1986
The Village - 1988
Orleans Inspiration - 1990
Blues And More - 1992
For All Seasons - 1996
Blues After Sunset - 1998
Vu-du Menz - 2000
The Game Has Just Begun - 2002
Homeland - 2004
Pianola - 2008

Photos

Bio

A four-time W.C. Handy “Best Blues Instrumentalist - Piano” award nominee, Henry Butler knows no limitations. Although blinded by glaucoma since birth, Butler is also a world class photographer with his work displayed at exhibitions throughout the United States. Playing piano since the age of six, Butler is a master of musical diversity. Combining the percussive jazz piano playing of McCoy Tyner and the New Orleans style playing of Professor Longhair through his classically-trained wizardry, Butler continues to craft a sound uniquely his own. A rich amalgam of jazz, Caribbean, classical, pop, blues and R&B influences, his music is as excitingly eclectic as that of his New Orleans birthplace.

Mastering baritone horn, valve trombone and drums, in addition to the piano, at the Louisiana State School for the Blind in Baton Rouge, as a youngster, Butler began formal vocal training in the eleventh grade. He went on to sing German lieder, French and Italian art songs and operatic arias at Southern and Michigan State Universities, earning a Masters degree in vocal music. He has taught music workshops throughout the country and initiated a number of different educational projects, including a residential jazz camp at Missouri State School for the Blind and a program for blind and visually impaired students at the University of New Orleans.

Mentored by influential jazz clarinetist and Michigan University teacher Alvin Batiste, Butler was encouraged to explore Brazilian, Afro-Cuban and other Caribbean music. With Batiste’s help, he successfully applied for National Endowment for the Arts grants to study with keyboard players George Duke, then with Cannonball Adderly’s Quintet, and the late Sir Roland Hanna. He studied with Harold Mabern, pianist for the late Lee Morgan, for a summer and spent a long afternoon studying with Professor Longhair.

While his early albums were jazz trio recordings featuring such top-notch instrumentalists as Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins, on “Fivin’ Around” in 1986, and Ron Carter and Jack DeJohnette, on “The Village” two years later, Butler has increasingly turned to New Orleans music and the blues. His 1990 album, “Orleans Inspiration”, recorded with Leo Nocentelli of the Meters, was followed by “Blues And More” in 1992. Although he briefly returned to jazz with “For All Seasons” in 1996, he’s remained immersed in the blues since releasing “Blues After Sunset” in 1998.

Collaborating with Corey Harris on a duo album, “Vu-du Menz”, in 2000, Butler spent the next three years touring with the Delta blues-influenced guitarist/vocalist. That fascination with the blues has continued to be reflected in his solo work. After releasing a power-packed, all electric, blues-rock, album, “The Game Has Just Begun”, in 2002 on the New Orleans based indie label Basin Street Records, Butler takes things even deeper with his latest outing on that label, “Homeland”, released in April 2004. “This album is a real turning point,” he said. “It was the first time that I’ve brought a blues and R&B band into the studio with me. On this record, I’m feeling closer to my roots.” On May 15th, 2004 the new release was charting at #11 on the Billboard Blues Charts.

After Katrina, he released his first live solo recording, PiaNOLA LIVE, earning rave reviews in major publications across the country. He established a home base in Colorado, but now spends most of his time in New York City where he is an active presence in the music scene. He tours extensively both with other well-known musicians and with his own groups or as a solo artist. In 2011, he began work on a new recording, spent two weeks at the prestigious Umbria Jazz Festival in Perugia, Italy, and was featured in The Wall Street Journal right before he brought an all-star blues group, Henry Butler and Jambalaya, to Manhattan’s premier music venue, The Jazz Standard, playing to packed houses for four nights in November. In 2012, he will spend two nights at Lincoln Center presenting a program he created on the great New Orleans piano tradition, sharing the stage with patriarch Ellis Marsalis and rising pianist Jonathan Battiste, one of his former students.