The are few musicians that I would call astonishing. New Orleans pianist Henry Butler qualifies to my ears. I remember the first recording of his that I listened to, the marvelous For All Seasons on Atlantic. Mostly backed by a trio that included David Holland on bass and Herman Jackson on drums (Steve Turre plays trombone on one track), the album generally is a strong hard bop piano set, but the highpoint is his solo rendition of W.C. Handy’s St. Louis Blues, on which his musical explorations bring a truly fresh take on this classic song. After this disc, his recordings have become less jazz-oriented and more blues-r’n’b focused.
His newest recording is PianoNOLA on Basin Street Records. Co-produced by George Winston, who produced Butler’s Orleans Inspiration, this disc is a collection of live solo performances that include several instrumentals as well his renditions of several blues and R&B classics. The strength of this recording is his piano playing especially on the marvelous renditions of Basin Street Blues, his own tour de force Orleans Inspiration, and the late Alvin Batiste’s North American Idiosyncrasies. As a vocalist, Butler sometimes come off as a bit melodramatic to these ears, but even on such a well-known number as Professor Longhair’s Tipitina, he radically reworks it in his stunning original solo and the piano and a wordless vocal part lifts up his rendition of the Ernie K-Doe classic, Mother-in-Law. While the overwrought vocal on Sitting on the Dock of the Bay, is perhaps the low point, the rollicking Let It Roll,’ (originally heard on the marvelous VU-DU-Menz album with Corey Harris) picks things up. If this reviewer finds this uneven, there is no question that there are many inspired moments throughout this disc. Maybe his wonderful Orleans Inspiration will get reissued.