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Henry Butler & Steven Bernstein: Viper’s Drag (Impulse)

Jul. 21, 2014
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What’s old is new again, again—especially in Brooklyn. Amidst the borough’s prohibition-era cocktails, faux speakeasies and timeless sea of ’20s-ish clever caps and facial hair, lies Katrina refugee and New Orleans piano traditionalist Henry Butler. His latest effort finds him alongside New York City’s finest, adhering mostly to an early Satchmo-era aesthetic and running the gamut of jazz’s heyday and similarly okra-inflected bayou boogie. But aside from having a substantial claim to being the greatest purveyor of Crescent City ivories, living or dead, the blind, baritone-throated songster is anything but a Brooklyn-housed, Jelly Roll-spouting jukebox.

In fact, the Fats Waller-penned title track opens matters at a manic, frightening pace, indicating urban paranoia rather than any kind of Dixie insouciance. It eventually settles into a cushiony parlor feel of New Orleans professorship, and this dichotomy is indicative of the touch of avant-garde trumpet player and arranger Steven Bernstein. Where there’s “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” it’s followed by the relentless, fresh strut of the original, “Henry’s Boogie.” When there’s a respite downshift to Count Basie’s moody “I Left My Baby,” it then lets loose with the finger-wagging closer of “Some Iko.” And if the pulse is a bit too on top, maybe hinting at an overly slick New York edge, which the drums and sheened production often do, Butler can always keep things just enough downhome with the command of his hometown’s idiom. Check his little-used voice—roughhewn, guttural, like it’s seen some shit and knows what to do with it.

But as arranger, Bernstein keeps an apt one-two focus. There’s the man himself—all stride piano flourish, fancy arpeggios and aggressive bumblebee flights of left-handed fancy. And then there’s the feel—modern-ish big band-hued mashup, horny collective improvisation and old-fashioned, turn-of-the-century goodtiminess. So it’s not exactly akin to the Urban Outfitters brand of vintage. But it’s a reminder that some old things really are worth keeping around and gives a refreshing, bouncy, sans-irony take on proper Dixieland.


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