Piano virtuoso and vocalist Henry Butler agrees that the music on his and trumpeter/arranger Steven Bernstein’s album, Viper’s Drag, represents the meeting of two great musical cities: New Orleans and New York.
Butler, a native of the Crescent City, says that’s how he and New Yorker Bernstein are branding their exciting new release that focuses primarily on freshly arranged traditional jazz beefed up by a horn section. It also just so happens to be on Impulse!—the label that put out Butler’s first two excellent jazz discs, 1986’s Fivin’ Around and 1988’s The Village.
Butler is now also a resident of New York, having moved to Brooklyn in 2009. After the levees broke following Katrina and destroyed his home, the pianist spent the interim years in Colorado. The move to New York was fortuitous in regard to this album as it offered the opportunity for Butler and Bernstein to perform together again. The two originally met in 1998 working in the Kansas City All Stars, a touring band affiliated with Robert Altman’s film Kansas City.
Butler is, of course, a hugely versatile artist fluent in a great wealth of musical styles and has been known to add a classical flourish in the midst of a rhythm-and-blues or modern-jazz tune. Beyond his solo piano work, he explored this city’s classic jazz thoroughly in the early 2000s, when he led Papa Henry’s Steamin’ Syncopators.
With Butler on piano and a heavy dose of pianist/composer Jelly Roll Morton material, including the legend’s “Wolverine Blues” and “King Porter Stomp,” Viper’s Drag shouts New Orleans. Meanwhile, Bernstein’s arrangements give the album—which could be titled Henry with Horns! or New Orleans Meets New York—a big-city attitude.
We talked to both Butler (HB) and Bernstein (SB) in separate phone interviews about their musical collaboration. From their responses, it’s obvious that there’s a great deal of mutual admiration going on between the two. That’s also realized in the music that they create.
I understand that you chose the songs on the album. I particularly wanted to ask you about the title cut, your rendition of Fats Waller’s “Viper’s Drag.”
HB: I think we both made the choice to do what’s on the CD and to do that program. I brought “Viper’s Drag” to Steve and thought it would be a great piece for us to do with this band, partly because I knew Steve would put his stamp on it. He likes to do these intros.
Yeah, the intro is wild … It’s an explosive start.
HB: That’s what I really like about Steve because, unless he tells you what the piece is, you don’t know what’s coming next. I’m kind of like that myself.
SB: Yeah, I wrote that little intro section. I don’t even remember where it came from—something from a Fats Waller piece that I extrapolated and I put it into a kind of Sun Ra feeling.
I suggested some of the songs like “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” although Henry suggested most of them—that’s really the way this worked. He played them for me and then he gave me the freedom to do something with them.
What’s the thing that is the most alike about you and Steven?
HB: We’re both students of history. He’s very knowledgeable about New Orleans music and the classic guys like Jelly Roll and even some of the more modern people from New Orleans—from the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s. Of course, I’m familiar with it having lived there all those years, studying and working to understand what each period brought to New Orleans music and New Orleans rhythm.
Steven, I like that you called Henry a space-traveler historian. Do you consider yourself that way,, too?
SB: Yeah, I think we’re alike that way. Musically, we’re pretty close. The obvious difference is that Henry really has to have that New Orleans beat with him all the time. Having come of age in New York, I have more of a New York beat. The thing is the combination of New York kind of music with a New Orleans beat—and I mean a real New Orleans beat. So that’s what you’re hearing here, the combination of our differences. That’s the real magic.
What’s the aspect of the music that’s the most different between you and Steven, and how do these elements fit together?
HB: Our approach to music, in some cases, is based in our different sub-cultures and how we came up and how we actually emotionalize and intellectualize music. It’s always great to talk to him about how he got there. He’s done a lot more traveling and performing with a lot more bands than I have. I’m more like Thelonious Monk in a way. I haven’t really opened myself up to be a sideman in a lot of people’s bands.
We both have a hand in the business, but fortunately for me, I don’t have to worry about who is playing alto sax or clarinet for the next performance—he always gets people that he’s familiar with in New York. I have a lot more to say about the rhythm section but that more directly affects me because there is a certain kind of thing that I like and there’s a certain standard I hold.
Now that you mentioned the rhythm section, drummer Herlin Riley and bassist Reginald Veal, who are both from New Orleans, appear on the album. Did you suggest that?
HB: I mentioned it to Joshua [Feigenbaum], who was producing the album and he thought it was a great idea and he contacted them. I mean I knew that we had to have somebody from New Orleans. There was nobody in New York that I knew who could do it the way I wanted it done—Herlin and Reggie, it’s just their natural thing.
Herlin is like most New Orleans musicians—he’s very enthusiastic, he’s very passionate, he’s very rhythmic and versatile. You know you’re going to get all of that with Herlin.
Steven, had you ever had the opportunity to work with Herlin or Reginald?
SB: No, I never even met them until the first rehearsal. They were amazing, obviously, and incredible. I was a little nervous because I’m used to working with people I’ve known for a long time. And you’re doing not just a session, but a record date with two guys you’ve never met. It was like, “Wow, are they going to like the music? Are they going to like the intro? Are they going to be cool?” And they were so cool and so into it and so great. That much I already knew.
In some ways, I feel like Herlin is somewhat like the Henry Butler of drums in that he can play the full spectrum—the history of the music.
SB: Absolutely, and like Henry, beyond the music, he has the magic.
I read that you call particular aspects of Henry’s piano playing “Henryisms.” I think those familiar with his pianistic approach would know what you mean, like the flourishes he uses on the tune, “Gimme a Pigfoot.” What is your definition of a Henryism?
SB: There are certain phrases that he plays that I just find are really very unique to him. They come from a combination of this whole of history that he’s pulling from—from people from like Jelly Roll, Fats Waller, Earl Hines, James Booker and Professor Longhair. They are things that are very pianistic. Because of his technique, there will be like a trill and something else happening at the same time. He usually has a couple of things going on at once.
Have you ever played with as many horns as there are in this band, the Hot 9? How does that change your dynamics? You know, you normally don’t leave a whole lot of open space when you play.
HB: I’ve played in full big bands and when I was in school a jazz band with [clarinetist/educator] Alvin Batiste. I’ve never brought a band like that into the studio, especially under my name.
Steve and I get together and we work our arrangements and he’s actually giving the horn players a lot of the stuff that I might do on piano. So immediately I have to find something else to play which is part of the challenge. I try not to get in the way of what they’re doing, but still get a little bit of Henry Butler in there. I do what I can to enhance what he’s done and he’s certainly done a lot to enhance what I’m doing.
How do you arrange the music differently for someone like Henry?
SB: I never did anything like I did with Henry. When I arrange, it would be for myself—my band—or behind a singer. With Henry I’m arranging for an instrumentalist. I kind of did this stuff, and forced his hand without really thinking about it. A lot of what he would normally play was already being played [by the horns]. My original idea was that the audience would be hearing two levels of Henry—something Henry had improvised in the past and something that Henry is improvising in the moment. It’s almost like three-dimensional art.
It’s always been my idea to do something like Miles [trumpeter Davis] and Gil [pianist/arranger Evans], not that it would sound like them but the idea of arranging around a virtuoso instrumentalist and let this virtuoso come up with something.
I asked Henry if he were the interviewer, what questions would he ask you. One of them was: “How do you see your role in a collaboration like this?”
SB: I’m almost like a facilitator in a sense. We’re co-equal, but the ideas come from Henry. And then I take these ideas and I turn to my imagination. It’s like we’re making a painting together, he starts the painting, I’m filling it in and he finishes it off.
Here’s another one of Henry’s questions: “How did you realize so much depth in terms of your musical knowledge and how did that stuff start to develop?”
SB: I was really lucky. There are many horn players whose first exposure was to big-band jazz. So they say, “I want to go on the road with a big band.” The first concert I went to by myself—I was in seventh grade—was Eddie Harris at [San Francisco’s] Keystone Korner, the second was Rahsaan Roland Kirk and the third was a double bill with Sam Rivers and Oliver Lake. [All major, modern-jazz saxophonists]. So my first exposure to music was these really heavy musicians—like the real stuff. So when I started to play, that’s the kind of music I wanted to make—magical and spiritual music. Plus I had some great older teachers; they were big band trumpet players—they were real professionals. Their whole thing was, love the jazz but learn the science—be able to make a living. So at a real early age, I was exposed to both of these things.
When I first heard Henry, I looked at him as the perfect musician. It [the music] was everything from the earliest blues you ever heard to ragtime to free jazz. We both have a lot of love for all kinds of music and I think a kind of curiosity too.
I see you’ve played and recorded soul, blues, funk, jazz … Had you performed traditional New Orleans jazz previous to this project with Henry?
SB: I’ve done concerts of Louis Armstrong’s Hot 5 done straight. It was like a job—someone hired me. They said, “Hey, can you play this music?” Yeah, I can play that music. I can play almost anything; I play the trumpet for a living. Louis Armstrong was the reason I started to play the trumpet when I was a kid. The first song I ever learned was “Basin Street Blues” when I was like in the fourth grade. In the ‘80s we had a little brass band that used to play at bars and we’d try to play some New Orleans-style stuff. Charlie Kohlmeyer, he lived in New Orleans and New York, played the drums with us. We didn’t know what we were doing but we loved it.
I came down to New Orleans and I went by the Palm Court and met George Buck. He said, “What are you doing in town?” I said, “Me and my friend are playing with Sting. And he said, “What are you doing here?” And I said, “Just because I’m playing with Sting that doesn’t mean that’s the only music we like. I’m here to get some Alvin Alcorn records. And he said, “How do you know about Alvin Alcorn?” Because I love New Orleans music. So he sold me some books. Then I start reading these books and I thought, oh, it’s like all one thing. The same guys that played in a brass band on Sunday afternoon, they might be recording with Little Richard or playing at the Palm Court. I realized it’s the same musicians. All this music comes from the same root.
What should people know about you?
SB: I’m a guy from New York who’s played for 30 years whatever type of music imaginable from the freest jazz to Elton John. I have this incredible love of New Orleans music, so it’s been an amazing journey. I feel this is my chance to add something—to add to the canon. Because I think having Henry, Herlin and Reginald there, it’s truly in the New Orleans tradition. But it’s a new part of the New Orleans tradition.
Henry, of course there is the inevitable question: Do you ever see yourself living back in New Orleans?
HB: The answer is I would love to but right now New York is the best place for me. Here’s the deal: It’s not an open and shut case. I’d love to at least have a place down there. I definitely would love to come down and get my New Orleans battery charged. I like the New York/New Orleans connection better than, say, the New York/Denver, Colorado connection.
When the guys from New Orleans come up to New York and play, sometimes I get to sit in with them. We just did a thing with [trombonist/vocalist] Glen David Andrews and that was a lot of fun.
On this album, you act as a New Orleans musical ambassador of sorts by including songs like “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” and “King Porter Stop” and music that is associated with the city. Your original tunes like “Dixie Walker,” which boasts a second-line rhythm, also speak of New Orleans.
HB: I’ve always felt that I was one of the New Orleans ambassadors. I think I will always feel that way. I think most of the people that I know who are from New Orleans feel like that. That’s how we came up, that’s what we knew, and that’s what we still want to play. Most of the people I know from New Orleans are proud to share the music with the world. I mean, it’s so unique, you know?