Henry Butler’s new album is exactly what the title promises, a pure, uncut blast of New Orleans piano. Solo piano albums at their simplest present the musician in the midst of a raw, physical pleasure, and you can hear that during some of Butler’s more athletic passages. Not only is he obviously enjoying the fact that he can play a ridiculously complex tangle of notes, but he can’t help but laugh a time or two out while doing it.
PiaNOLA Live isn’t simply a dazzling display of keyboard dexterity, though. There’s certainly plenty of that, but even that reveals personality. His solo piano doesn’t have the elegance of Dr. John’s, but he has a grinding intensity that’s pretty arresting, and the effect deepens by contrast when he shifts into or out of the ballads “Dock of the Bay” and “You Are My Sunshine.” The latter is the revelation on the album, as it takes the endless filigreeing of phrases and uses them to present a theatrical evocation of loss and loneliness. The lovely, swirling right hand almost mocks his despair, particularly in the last minute when he is done with the lyric and obsesses on his loss. His vocal is so pained that when he sings, “You light up my life,” you only flicker on Debbie Boone for a moment before returning to the song.
The solo piano album is as much an exercise in exploring a song’s construction as anything else, and nowhere is that clearer than in his version of “Tipitina.” At no point in the first three minutes does he play anything that hints at the song he is about to play. It’s beautifully indirect, and the song is almost a letdown not because of any fault in the performance, but because once he hits the opening pick-up, you know where the song goes. Fortunately, part way through, he takes off for parts unknown to such a degree that it’s not clear how he’ll get back to the song proper. Then he lands it without a hitch.
The set is dotted with crowd pleasers including “Let ’em Roll” and “Will It Go Round in Circles,” neither of which pay off like the showier pieces, but even in them, Butler finds subtle pleasures. For example, he builds anticipation for “Mother-in-Law” by roaring the bass with his left hand.
Curiously, two least engaging cuts are the pieces that are solo piano by design, “Orleans Inspiration” and “North American Idiosyncrasies.” Part of the internal tension that powers the other pieces emerges as Butler moves through different musical vocabularies mid-song, playing barrelhouse next to Tyner next to Broadway next to Booker, but these pieces never wander off the post-bop ranch. As accomplished as they are, they suffer by comparison. Still, this is the album that people have been waiting for Butler to make, and the wait has been worth it.