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Correspondence: Butler Did It

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Henry Butler Rifftides reader Garret Gannuch practices pediatric radiology in Denver. When he moved to Colorado, his Louisiana soul went with him. A week ago, Dr. Gannuch traveled into the country south of Denver to hear a fellow New Orleanian. He knew that, like nearly anyone who's ever lived there, I'll never get over my love affair with New Orleans and he wrote me about the experience. I asked him if I could let you in on it. He said yes. Here is his report.
I attended a solo piano concert by Henry Butler at the Cherokee Ranch and Castle in Douglas Country, Colorado. The setting couldn't be better. The music is presented on a ranch amid more than 3,000 preserved acres south of Denver in a beautiful, relaxed great hall comfortably seating 50 or so music lovers. The food is good too.

Butler, the jazz and blues pianist, composer, and singer from New Orleans, gave an energetic and uplifting performance. Influenced by Sir Roland Hanna, James Booker and Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd), his music is infused with the rhythms of New Orleans piano— a style rarely mentioned in blogs and articles—and the blues. His speech and manner are gentle and humorous. His playing is forceful.

He opened the historically informed program with “Trocha," a tango from 1896 by William Henderson Tyres. Essentially playing the piece straight, he let the Cuban dance rhythms dominate the hall. You could hear and feel the relationships between Caribbean, New Orleans, jazz and blues music. Butler permeated the evening with the kind of rhythms New Orleans second-liners dance to as he built on the mood set by the opening number. He followed with tour de force versions of “Wolverine Blues" by Jelly Roll Morton (1906), “Buddy Bolden's Blues" ("Funky Butt") by Willy Cornish (1902) and Morton's “King Porter Stomp" (1923). But even when he moved on to “How to Handle a Woman" by Lerner and Loewe, “Fiddler on the Roof" by Bock and Harnick, “If I Only Had a Heart" and “Ding-Dong! The Witch is Dead" by Arlen and Harburg, the heavily syncopated and dotted-rhythm style of New Orleans piano dominated. Everything was infused with the blues.

In the second half of the program he introduced powerful vocals into the evening and played his own “New Orleanian in Exile," “Booker Time," and “I Got My Eyes on You" as well as “Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" by Cropper and Redding. For encores he sang a soulful version of Kern and Hammerstein's “Ol' Man River," the best I have ever heard live, and got the room dancing to Professor Longhair's “Go to the Mardi Gras."

Reviewers often mention Butler's “thunderous" approach to the keyboard, use of syncopated block chords and clusters, fast interacting arpeggiated lines, the interaction between hands and the strong rhythms. But, for me, there is more than a heavy touch. I can hear his love for classical music. You can tell he listened to Alicia de Larrocha, Andre Watts, Andre Previn, Walter Gieseking, Horowitz, as well as jazz greats Peterson, Tatum, Jarett and Corea—and loves them all. He produces an original, rich, deep gumbo that brings me back to New Orleans, inviting me to move with the music and participate in the event.

Butler gives yearly trio and solo performances at Cherokee Ranch. Check out their varied schedule.


Thanks to Dr. Gannuch for sharing his impressions. As far as I know, there is no video of Butler's Cherokee Ranch concert. Here he is during his stint last year as artist in residence at Mendocino College in northern California. Listen to him turn a lemon into lemonade at about 2:45.



Butler's CD called Pianola is a collection of his astonishing solo performances.


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This story appears courtesy of Rifftides by Doug Ramsey.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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