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Henry Butler
 For All Seasons, Atlantic Jazz CD 82856-2, 1996 (55:47)

 Star student of the New Orleans piano professors

I have to admit a bias. I've really liked Henry Butler since a friend turned me on to him through a copy of Orleans Inspiration a few years ago. The record was a mishmash of solo piano pieces, Henry singing New Orleans standards and the whole band funkin' through New Orleans grooves. The recording was mediocre (live at Tipitina's in New Orleans) with plenty of nasal synthesizer substituting for a horn section. The album (released on Windham Hill Jazz, WD-0122, 1990) as a whole was pretty forgettable, but it was obvious that Butler himself was a monstrous musical talent. I didn't hear much about him for a while and then happened to see him live at the Howlin' Wolf in New Orleans in the spring of 1994. Just Henry, one microphone, an electric piano and a small audience. If he was monstrous on CD, he was absolutely electrifying in person. A disciple of legendary pianists Professor Longhair and James Booker, Butler was so commanding, so confident and had so much to say musically, it was obvious that we only saw the tip of the iceberg that night.

To my great delight, Butler has surfaced again, this time on Atlantic Jazz with bassist Dave Holland and drummer Herman Jackson. This time out, Butler gives us what he calls, "purely a jazz best record yet." I haven't heard his two early outings on MCA/Impulse, but Butler has clearly moved to a new level. Butler studied piano from the age of eight and was in the clubs by fourteen, but didn't begin jazz studies until he met music educator Alvin Batiste at Southern University in Louisana. Batiste convinced Butler to study improvisation, which Butler now teaches at Eastern Illinois University. Hearing this record, it's difficult to believe he hasn't been improvising since birth. The album is mostly Butler originals with a few standards thrown in. All but two are full trio, and the solo pieces capture Butler in two distinctly different moods. The material loosely covers the "seasons" theme with explicit compositions for three of the four (summer is covered in "Blues For All Seasons"), but it doesn't beat you over the head with it. The trio explores a range of emotions through blues-based and standard forms, with one tricky exception, the 9/4 Butler original, "Spring Jam". The strength of rhythm section Dave Holland and Herman Jackson is particularly evident on this tune, as they give what could be a boring fusionesque ramble a rolling Latin pulse. There seems to be a real connection between Butler and Jackson in particular (Jackson appeared on Orleans Inspiration as well). You can almost hear Butler extracting ideas from Jackson as he constructs his solos.

The piano trio setting is an interesting one for Butler. With a bassist as strong as Dave Holland, Butler is forced to reign in his powerful left hand and visit opportunities in the upper register. While he's never far from his New Orleans piano sensibilities (and he's always funky) this format does allow him to show a new side. While he performs beautifully, tossing off blistering two-handed runs without apparent effort, it sometimes feels as if Butler wants to break out on his own. After all, he can do it all by himself. To his credit, he uses his enormous powers for good only. Steve Turre, who seems to be showing up everywhere these days, adds beautiful trombone solos to "Souvenir d'un Amour (Memories of a Love Affair)," during which Butler demonstrates that for all his strength, he can support a soloist without muscling in.

Lest you forget where he came from, Butler manages to sneak in a flabbergasting solo piano version of "St. Louis Blues," a chickory-roasted New Orleans stride chock full of dizzying rhythmic and harmonic excursions. With a breathtaking sense of time, he leans way out over the rhythmic rail until you're sure he's going to fall, but always pulls back in at the last second, never losing his balance. You can almost hear the smile on his face. As good as his work with the trio is, to me he sounds most at home alone with the piano. There, in the precision of his articulation, you can hear the intention in each note played and his love for the freedom of a solo instrument. (It's interesting to note that Butler holds a master's degree in voice, ultimately the most expressive of solo instruments.) The additional focus Butler was able to bring to this record is sure to earn him more of the recognition he deserves. You'll not leave this one wondering whether Butler is a singer, R&B artist or a piano player. He is strong and confident, with the thundering boldness of McCoy Tyner, the snakiness and sinew of Professor Longhair and his own superb sense of time. I don't think we've yet seen him at the peak of his ability, and I look forward to following him as he continues his work. --  Jason Staczek

production notes

Henry Butler, piano; Dave Holland, bass; Herman Jackson, drums; Steve Turre, trombone.

Produced by Yves Beauvais, engineered by Bruce Calder, mastered by Ted Jensen.

of related interest

Henry Butler
OffBeat Magazine ran a feature on Henry Butler in its February 1996 issue.

James Booker
 Junco Partner, Rykodisc/Hannibal CD HNCD 1359, 1993

Marcus Roberts
 Alone With Three Giants, Novus CD 3109-2-N, 1991 (61:43)

Copyright © 1996 Peppercorn Press. All rights reserved.