Pianist Henry Butler is one blind bluesman with extraordinary vision.
By Dave McElfresh
NO COUNTRY IN the world produces regional music as distinct as what we churn out in the good old U.S. of A.--not that the average music listener thinks anything on CD originates anywhere other than Los Angeles or New York. Yeah, some blues fans are familiar with the Chicago scene from the '50s, thanks to Buddy Guy, Eric Clapton and the Stones praising the Windy City's defunct Chess Records, home of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf. But New Orleans has been the underrated music capitol of the country for an entire century, having brought us icons as varied as Little Richard, Dr. John, Louis Armstrong and the Neville Brothers.
New Orleans pianist Henry Butler so well incorporates the region's entire stylistic spectrum that he damn well deserves a regular paycheck from the Crescent City's Chamber of Commerce. Butler's five albums delve into the jazz, rhythm and blues and early rock and roll that've infiltrated the rest of the country over previous decades.
"I enjoy doing roots music because I think I can push the envelope in that area and bring in new devices," he said regarding the music on his newest release, Blues After Sunset. The album is a bayou-drenched exercise in Southern piano history, conveying the personalities of significant and terribly overlooked national treasures like James Booker and Professor Longhair. Few contemporary releases do a better job identifying the piano roots of the now guitar-driven blues and rock categories.
Butler, whose previous albums stretched from the hardcore jazz confines of the Impulse! label to the new-agey feel of Windham Hill, is currently presenting himself as an evangelist for the blues. While others might gravitate toward the blues as a marketable move, the blind pianist naturally settles into the groove, making his newest release sound like a homecoming. His compositions are so thick with the piano blues style of his birthplace as to make them indistinguishable from the traditional, regional public domain cuts he covers.
Most contemporary blues music is faceless stuff used to pound out a simplistic, drunken dance-floor prelude to midnight grab-n-giggle games. Butler's output is thicker bizness, legitimately presenting itself as a reverent but still rude nod toward the roots of funk and boogie. You can slip out to screw if you wanna, but you might prefer sticking around to hear Butler update the grooves that made Southern grandparents drop their drawers. Nothing on any station your radio dial reaches will sound as gritty. Dr. John himself, whose spotty history as the post-Professor Longhair/James Booker king of New Orleans piano is matched on Blues After Sunset, refers to Butler as "the pride of New Orleans and a visionistical down-home cat and hellified piano plunker to boot."
One of the weirdest bits of info this writer has ever encountered relates to Butler's side interest: The blind pianist is also a dedicated photographer, which suggests that his senses regarding music may be far more keen than those of the average musician. "I could always tell the good players from the others," he says about his ability, reaching as far back as the age of 4, to distinguish between the artistic and the average. "That's something I just don't know how to explain."
Prior to his appearance at the Tucson Blues Festival, Butler will be sharing his insights with local students, on October 16 and 17. "I'll be forever grateful to those teachers who kept me from being an insular musician," he recently stated in an interview with New Orleans' Offbeat magazine. "They helped me learn to not only tolerate, but to appreciate many, many styles of music. Too often students wind up not getting as much as they could from education because they learn only one style. I may have gotten more out of my education," says Butler, typically understating his knowledge of New Orleans' musical history, "because I was more willing to explore and experience."
Pianist Henry Butler headlines the 14th-annual Tucson Blues Festival on Sunday, October 18, in the Reid Park DeMeester Outdoor Performance Center, Country Club Road entrance north of 22nd Street. Avoid parking hassles and take the free shuttle. The free "Blues in the Park" concert begins at 11:30 a.m. with Grams, Scott & Stillwagon, and continues throughout the day with sets by Janiva Magness & Jeff Turmes, Snooky Pryor, E.C. Scott, Tommy Castro, and Butler.
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