In all of the media coverage and events on the 10th anniversary of Katrina, Henry Butler, the piano genius whose Gentilly home filled with floodwaters, was largely invisible. We have seen many accounts of musicians who took huge losses but managed to come back and rebuild. Butler was not in that number. He landed in Colorado for a long stretch after Katrina and eventually relocated to New York, where he teamed up with Steven Bernstein, a trumpeter, composer and bandleader of long and varied experience, particularly as an arranger for Levon Helm. Losing his base in New Orleans was hard for Butler, but finding his way to the city of cities was a fortunate career move.
Viper’s Drag, the 2014 Butler-Bernstein collaboration with the Hot 9, builds off downhome ragtime, as in “Henry’s Boogie,” ranging into more melodically complex pieces with an orchestral feel, like “Wolverine Blues,” a Jelly Roll Morton composition with sleek arrangements by Bernstein.
Butler covers the keyboard with a talent as relentless as James Booker, as deft as Allen Toussaint; yet to know Butler is to appreciate the rigorous intellectual standards that set him apart from most of the other players in the line of New Orleans piano maestros going back to Morton. Toussaint the composer is more naturally poetic. Tom McDermott can play anything and make the keyboard sing. Butler has a style of deep blues layering that colors his jazz work with magical surprises.
“So why does the music of New Orleans sound so different?” Butler asks in a blog post on his website. He then gives his answer: “The difference is the employment of the rhythmic scheme. The rhythmic variance – what some people call syncopation – can make the harmonies sound and feel different; it can alter how one receives and perceives melody. The texture of a composition can become more noticeable and of course the beat makes you want to move, keeps you excited and interested in the music you’re listening to.”
A prime example of that texture and the elastic use of rhythm and harmony is Butler’s version of “You Are My Sunshine” on The Game Has Just Begun. The ballad made famous by Jimmie Davis (who purchased the song and from its rights made a fortune) has timeless lyrics as adaptable to country-western as R&B stylizations. Butler sings with a trembling blues power, spacing out the phrases to surging piano strokes, packing the lyrics, “You’ll never know, dear, how much I love you / please don’t take my sunshine away,” with the passion of a man pleading for the return of the woman he lost.
In performance Butler draws liberally from Professor Longhair standards such as “Big Chief” and “Tipitina.” Viper’s Drag features a different Indian tune, “Some Iko,” a reworking the “Iko Iko” standard, dropping pieces of the lyrics, substituting his own fragments with a rhythmic variance, to quote the artist. It may yet be obligatory to explain that Butler, who has a Masters in music from the University of Michigan, is also blind. At some point he’ll reach a status, as Ray Charles did, where the fact is so tangential to the talent as to not need mention. The careful wording on his blog is a sign of his highly articulate sense of craft.
The precision of Butler’s musical expression fits hand to glove with Bernstein’s arrangements. They approach the works of Morton and other composers of early jazz as a canon, much in the manner of Wynton Marsalis, Tom McDermott and Aurora Nealand, using the classics of the flowering, nearly a century past, as material to play in new, inventive ways.
Butler can play across the map from traditional jazz to bebop with any number of side excursions into soul or even classical compositions. Viper’s Drag is jazz at its finest and further proof that New Orleans Style has a melodic foundation which, in the right hands, will yield music as rich as any being played these days.