John Boutté, a voice of Treme
Singers spend their lives searching for songs, lyrics to wrap the voice around, rhythms that lend to inventive cadences in the phrasing. John Boutté is a voice of Treme, sung large upon the world. From that ancient neighborhood, scarred by poverty, crime and housing demolitions, a musical pulse has continued, bridging the era of George Lewis playing in the Gypsy Tea Room to the upsurge of second-line parades with younger brass bands playing today.
Boutté grew up in a 7th Ward family with nine brothers and sisters. He sang in a cappella street groups and played the trumpet in school. After Xavier University, he joined the Army, where he found himself drawn to gospel choirs. Once out of the service, he began a series of European tours, singing with his sister Lillian Boutté, who built a successful career as a jazz vocalist in Germany and Scandinavia.
In early jazz, Creole piano players such as Manuel Manetta, who performed in Tremé, and Burnell Santiago, who lived there, played with a habanera influence. After settling in Treme, Boutté became a driving force in Cubanismo!, a group of Cuban and local players who melded rhythms of the island with second-line rhythms of this city. Cubanismo! includes dazzling renditions of several R&B standards. “Mother-in-Law” uses a faster Latin tempo than Ernie K-Doe’s original, with Boutté bouncing off a bed of harmonies that give the tune a nice world-music patina. The Cubans play the New Orleans beats like a congenial second language, substituting precision for the New Orleans homegrown relaxation, then steer the songs toward sputtering rumba and mambo. In 2000, Jon Pareles of The New York Times wrote that when the group played in New York, “the tunes were dialogues rather than amalgams, yet they made for euphoric dance music, especially in a medley of Mardi Gras Indian tunes.”
Post-9/11 travel restrictions have made it harder for the Cuban musicians to get here; Cubanismo! rarely performs in New Orleans.
Boutté, who appeared the first weekend of Jazz Fest, headed out for concert dates in Germany and in Costa Rica, returning for club dates in mid-May. His voice is filled with the color and historical texture of the Treme neighborhood, which he celebrates in two recent CDs, Jambalaya and Carry Me Home.
Carry Me Home, with the band Uptown Okra, shows a new turn for Boutté, with a sweetly bounding bluegrass motif, thanks to producers Brian Siegel and Nick Backer, who also play guitar and mandolin, respectively. Matt Rhody’s country fiddle laces Boutté’s take on the tune Arlo Guthrie made famous, “City of New Orleans.” Boutté starts in slow tempo, like a train lumbering up a bridge, then at the plateau he starts belting out the lyrics with a racing pulse.
He has a grand time crooning an old Danny Barker gem, “I’m A Cowboy,” with witty brass saxophone lines by Tim Green that roll through like a counter-tune whispering murmurs of hope to that dude in the saddle heading into the cold wind.
John Boutté’s voice has echoes of Sam Cooke’s, but there is a strange, beautiful chemistry to his singing. The gravelly tenor can streak into higher octaves with lilting passionate flights that at moments seem androgynous, as if a man and woman are singing at once, a fusion that clearly owes to his long immersion in gospel.
On Jambalaya, Boutté refashions “All These Things,” which put a young Art Neville on the map, by injecting the wisdom of midlife to peel off the patina of an easy-loping R&B waltz. He substitutes a bluesier job, stretching out the phrases to convey a lover wanting, not just celebrating love. It’s all in the phrasing.
Boutté takes a blues turn with singer Annie Lennox’s “Why?” He packs so much pain into it that you’d swear this guy is on his knees, wailing for the lover that just left, with the money.
Boutte’s signature songs, “At the Foot of Canal Street” and “Sisters,” are anthems to the city and neighborhood life and are likely to become local standards.
Every singer should pack intensity into the performance. Boutté goes way more than the scriptural extra mile, as when he sings “Battle Hymn of the Republic” on Jambalaya, a version so heart-throttling it reminds us that those famous lyrics – “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord/ He is trampling out the vineyards where the grapes of wrath are stored” – come from a vision of the apocalypse in the New Testament’s last chapter, the Book of Revelation. The next time some politician wants to prove they’re born-again, they ought to pay John Boutté to sing “Battle Hymn.” Even if the minions know that politician is a backslider, they’ll go home believing in John Boutté. •