Before & After: Henry Butler

IMG_27371. Professor Longhair
“Tipitina” (from New Orleans Piano, Atlantic). Longhair [Roy Byrd], piano, vocals; Lee Allen, tenor sax; Red Tyler, baritone sax; Edgar Blanchard, bass; Earl Palmer, drums. Recorded in 1953.

Of course I know who that is. Professor Longhair was the beginning of a new era of piano playing, especially for rhythm & blues. It’s an amazing thing, even how he starts this tune.

The very beginning notes, the sixteenth note triplets, he said he did it to emulate the drummer, like if he heard the drummer do a short press roll to end the phrase, it’s sort of like a turnaround. Professor Longhair is more of a percussionist, especially when he’s playing in the New Orleans style. You know, he plays some boogie and some shuffle stuff too, and it’s not always apparent in those styles. But when he’s playing this, or tunes like “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” he’s functioning more as a percussionist.

Was he the first to do that?

Well, Jelly Roll did that to an extent. But he had more facility than Professor Longhair and in his left hand he did more emulating of the tuba. Professor Longhair influenced a lot of people and a lot of people imitate him. I have to count myself as someone who used his style to create something different.  I’m trying to remember who the drummer was on that. Earl? Earl Palmer? I think about the underlying rhythm of most New Orleans rhythm & blues music. We call it the bamboula rhythm [demonstrates it with handclaps]. As a matter of fact, I’ve stopped calling it rhythm & blues. I call it rhythm in blues because you can’t really separate the rhythm and the blues in New Orleans music. The blues was already there. And when the musicians in New Orleans became players on the national scene, they brought their rhythmic content with them, which made the blues sound different. You still have the blues forms but you wind up having more syncopation, as opposed to just having a 2 and 4 backbeat. Also, when I listen to what Earl did on this track, I reflect on how much the Place du Congo festivals still influenced the music. There wasn’t a whole lot of time between the closing of that festival and the start of jazz. I’m happy I had a chance to study with Professor Longhair. I had a recording of that marathon lesson, but I don’t know if I still have it because of Katrina. But he was very precise and concise. He wasn’t an educated man in the formal sense of the word, but he knew exactly what he wanted to say to me and what he wanted me to do. He often taught by example. For example he’d say, “play a boogie-woogie for me.” So I played what I thought was a boogie-woogie. But he said, I don’t play it like that, I play it like this. I wouldn’t have thought of what he played as a boogie but it’s ok. It almost doesn’t matter because the names and labels and what you read about labels is illusionary.

2. McCoy Tyner
“Slapback Blues” (from Guitars, Half Note). Tyner, piano; Derek Trucks, guitar; Ron Carter, bass; Jack DeJohnette, drums. Recorded in 2006.

I think it’s McCoy. If it’s not McCoy, he’s using a lot of the rhythms and quartal harmonies that McCoy uses. The guitarist I’m not sure about. When I listen to a piece like that I think that’s another form of rhythm in blues. Most people would call it a jazz piece, and that’s fine. That’s why I say labels are deceptive sometimes because many times the people who create the labels don’t play the music and they’re not necessarily part of the culture where the music is coming from.  So I have some concerns about that and in some cases some problems with it. In this piece I hear the Elvin Jones flavor with the triplets. And that comes to us from our understanding of African rhythms and the Nanigo. When I started paying more attention to Elvin Jones and some other drummers, I realized it comes straight out of that. This pianist, although he has exhibited a lot of facility, is functioning a lot more as a percussionist and playing a lot more on the ands of the beat, the upper part of the beat, and using the 12/8 meter as the underlying rhythms. [chuckles at the guitar solo] Is that B.B. King? He’s definitely hearing mostly minor blues scales. And his phrasing is totally blues like, which brings on quite a few other subjects. There are probably some jazz purists who might not like it, but so what! I think it works. It all comes from the same lineage. Blues is a parent of jazz. So are certain forms of black sacred music. I like the direction that some of this music is going these days. A lot of people are getting into cross-pollination, like this real blues guitar player teaming up with a McCoy Tyner. You can really hear some of the lines of distinction there coming from the same heritage. That’s why it works.

After: [laughter] Talk about cross-pollination, that’s great. I got to hear Derek this last summer and he can play. He wasn’t quite playing like that but it was heavily blues flavored.

3. Jimmy Rushing
“Trix Ain’t Walking No More” (from Jazz Casual, Koch). Rushing, piano, vocal. Recorded in 1962.

Before: [chuckles and grunts periodically] The form is strophic, it comes back around and repeats. Simple harmonies. It’s effective, I like it. I’m assuming he’s talking about a lady who’s selling. It’s simply played, and I’m assuming he’s also the pianist. I think we could make a case for pieces like that, and maybe Louis Jordan and some others, being among the forerunners of the polished rap we hear today. It sort of reminds me of the country blues in that you couldn’t always pinpoint when the next chord would sound or when the next phrase might start. This is more like poetry with musical support.

After: Wow. That’s great. I got to meet him once but he was already up there. He contributed some interesting things to the repertoire. I didn’t buy a lot of his records. I was more into instrumentals in those days.

4. Catherine Russell
“You Better Watch Yourself Bub” (from Sentimental Streak, World Village) Russell, vocal; Mark Shane, piano; Lee Hudson, bass; Matt Munisteri, guitar; Larry Campbell, mandolin; James Wormworth, drums. Released in 2008.

Before: The playing style harkens back to some stuff in the late 20’s, and even the revival of trad jazz in the ’40s. I like the way the way the pianist was supporting the singer. It swings. It’s got that old pocket feeling. That swing style is still being played. The only thing I missed is hearing the bass drum playing quarter notes. I like it. I hear this singer as an instrumentalist more than a vocalist. Just slight embellishments. A lot of melisma would have destroyed it. Her voice really suits this song. The tone, the flavor, the timbre really fits this piece. It moves me.

After: I don’t know any of these people but they made it work, and for me that’s the key.

5. Ellis Marsalis
“Rhythm-a-Ning” (from An Open Letter To Thelonious, Elm). Marsalis, piano; Derek Douget, saxophone; Jason Stewart, bass; Jason Marsalis, drums. Recorded in 2007.

Is that Ellis? I’ve heard him play a lot [laughter]. Ellis can be a wonderful player sometimes. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes he really does exhibit a lot of facility. In this case I don’t think it’s that necessary. I would like to have heard more in the very beginning of this piece, to set a tone and then fall back or peel back from a technical standpoint. I was never a fan of people, especially pianists, playing repeated notes unless it sounds like you’ve got a plan to bring people to a different place, an idea of where you want to take your audience. Miles had that. You can do that on single line instruments and feel the continuity but piano is a different instrument and it requires that you show a little more, maybe tease in a different way. That’s my view. I love Ellis’s playing. Ellis can be very melodic when he wants to. He can stretch out when he wants to. It’s just got to be that right time. After Katrina, for instance, I heard Ellis play his butt off. He sounded like he had been practicing and playing a lot, his fingers were nimble. He was playing. I’m not sure if he wasn’t coasting on this. I’ve heard him play that much better.

After: I heard him sort of practice some of that at Snug Harbor before they recorded it.

6. Nat “King” Cole
“Easy Listening Blues” (from The Best of Nat King Cole Trio, Capitol). Cole, piano; Oscar Moore, bass; Johnny Miller, bass;. Recorded in 1944.

Before: I think I know the tune. It sounds like a lot of things I’ve heard. There are elements of Oscar Peterson and a lot of people who played like this, including Ray Charles’s early pieces before he signed with Atlantic. If it’s Oscar, it would be in one of his more mellow moments. Obviously a blues. It almost sounds like Herb Ellis, using a lot of parallel 3rds, mixed with some melodic things. Everything is pretty much chordal, a few passing passing tones. It’s mellow.

After: Well, yeah, ok. I checked out his singing, but when I first started I was into McCoy Tyner, Harold Mabern, a lot of the percussive players. I came to appreciate Roland Hanna, who was a more  linear, more melodic guy, and Horace Silver. I checked out a little of Nat’s piano stuff. I like what I’ve heard. My desire for a long time was to listen to players who had lots of technique, lots of facility, lots of dexterity. I kind of nailed that down to people who had technique but in my opinion could really play, as opposed to those that just had a lot of technique. In that way I didn’t always listen to people who were maybe, in my view, as predictable as Nat. But I like his work.

7. Bosie Sturdivant
“Ain’t No Grave Can Hold My Body Down” (from A Treasury of Library of Congress Field Recordings, Rounder). Sturdivant, vocal. Recorded in 1942.

Before: I don’t know who’s doing the lead on that but it reminds me of a few things I’ve gotten from the Library of Congress. One of the interesting things about African-American music in this country is some of the country blues and gospel styles were evolving around the same time. And you started to hear more differentiations between the sacred part of the repertoire and the blues around 1912, 1913. It started to be recorded more around 1917. This is a very simple piece and it’s like a lot of spirituals, like a lot of blues forms. It makes me feel very much like I’m in a down home place. I used to play some of this stuff in church. When preachers did their little call and response things I’d just start playing it. They didn’t always expect that or want it but they never told me to stop. This reminds me of those country churches with the stomping of the feet for every quarter note. I don’t know what year this was recorded but this could be a forerunner of many of the gospel quartets like the Zion Harmonizers. This is definitely from the southern regions, from Alabama, Mississippi, parts of Louisiana.

After: [laughter] There you go. It wasn’t as old as I thought. But people were doing that kind of stuff as far back as the early ’20s and even before. Was this recorded by Lomax? It works. It wasn’t as much call & response. It’s partly rehearsed, partly improvised. It’s good. I like it.

8. Jimmie Rodgers
“Blue Yodel No. 9” (from Louis Armstrong: Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Columbia Legacy). Rodgers, guitar, vocal; Louis Armstrong, trumpet; Lil Armstrong, piano. Recorded in 1930.

Before: Is that W.C. Handy? Did he write this? [hums along with the yodel]. It really sounds like one of the New Orleans groups from somewhere in between 1923-26. It’s certainly not Louis Armstrong on trumpet, at least it doesn’t sound like it. The pianist is definitely playing in the style of one of the groups that went to Chicago from New Orleans. It’s got a little bit of a swing to it, a little bit of a lilt.

After: It is Louis Armstrong! It has elements of the country blues, in terms of how the form comes around. I’m sure I have that piece somewhere. I like it.

9. Tim Ries
“You Can’t Always Get What You Want” (from Stones World, Sunnyside). Ries, tenor saxophone; Michael Davis, trombone; Jack DeJohnette, drums; Bill Frisell, guitar; James Genus, bass; Larry Goldings, organ. Released in 2008.

Before: I have to say I don’t get to listen to a lot of the newer records these days. But that style harkens back to the ’60s, especially the rhythmic concept. That’s not Jack DeJohnnette on there is it? That sounds like the way he played on some of those Miles Davis things. This is a pop tune, I can’t remember the title though. You have to be careful when you take a pop tune and adapt it for your own purposes. I’m not sure it would be a tune that I’d play a lot. It’s got tertian harmony in there, it’s got some quartal stuff. If I were doing a tune like that I’d figure out a way to support the melody and then I’d take it to a totally different place. I wouldn’t do solos on the same form. It’s really about making the tune live in a different way.

After: Yeah, the Rolling Stones. It’s good. I like a lot of what I heard in there.

10. Alvin Batiste
“Banjo Noir” (from Late, Columbia). Batiste, clarinet; Fred Sanders, piano; Elton Heron, bass; Herman Jackson, drums. Released in 1993.

For those guys from New Orleans who made the effort to ground themselves not only in New Orleans music but in jazz and other styles, you can definitely hear the difference in how they play in the jazz style vs. the New York players or guys from LA. This is definitely more rhythmic in nature, the way the drummer supports the piece. If you know about the bamboula rhythm, you can hear it here. Of course this is Alvin Batiste. And the way this tune is written, it’s got lots of breaks in it. I studied with him and I spent a lot of years with him. I know his idiosyncrasies. First of all he loves using quartal mixed with tertian flavors. He uses what we call the mystical chord, which is a chord that Debussy and the Impressionists used. It starts on the dominant 7th: The next note up is the 3rd,  then the 6th—some people might call it the 13th—then the 9th and then the 5th and then the tonic on top. So a lot of his stuff is created on those kind of harmonies. But his rhythmic understanding plays a big part in how he writes. So he’s consciously using certain African rhythmic phrases. Alvin and the drummer Herman Jackson had the privilege of going to Africa and spending a lot of time over there doing concerts and gathering materials and they used a lot of that. And we were fortunate as students to study with a guy who had such wonderful knowledge about African culture and rhythm and teaching us how to merge and integrate the two cultures. This is a guy who had lots of technique but it wasn’t always about using it. It was about showing proficiency but also showing something about cultural ideas, using certain scales, certain idioms and expressions that may be more obscure. I think he’s one of those guys that I would rank among the top jazz musicians when he was alive. The only drawback was, if I had more to do with the way he structured his career and who he recorded with, I would have put him with people like Herbie Hancock so you could really hear what this guy could do. He mostly recorded with his students. On some recordings he had people like Rufus Reid, Kenny Barron. All the guys on this track are his students or former students. And it’s not that they’re bad players, they’re wonderful players. But he would have gotten a lot more recognition if he had recorded with Jack DeJohnette, Herbie, guys like that.

Why do you think he chose not to?

It was easy, he was a professor and he had the students there. They were playing well and it didn’t cost much to do it. We tried to get him to consider teaching at one of the bigger schools but he really believed in helping ghetto youngsters like me. It’s not enough to study jazz or classical or anything. You’ve got to have people who have knowledge of the underlying content. And you’ve got to have people who not only have the knowledge but can teach it. A lot of his phrases are intended to be rhythmic phrases [demonstrates]. It’s like a lot of things that came out of New Orleans; It’s an African thing, it’s a Caribbean thing.

Was Alvin among the first of that generation to explore those aspects?

I’m not sure he was among the first but I would say he was definitely among the few who not only studied it but could articulate what was was happening. He was one of the few people I’ve met in music who had consciously spent time studying various cultures. He not only studied these various cultures but could actually play what he studied.


This piece originally appeared in JazzTimes in early 2009.

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