Discs: Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein, ‘Viper’s Drag’ - The Buffalo News
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Discs: Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein, ‘Viper’s Drag’


Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein

“Viper’s Drag”


3 stars

Once upon a time, we had a story here about music on disc that prominent Buffalonians were swooning over at the time. At the time, one of the hippest Buffalo Bills was pleased to report that the disc that neither he nor his teammates could get out of their disc players was by New Orleans jazz/R&B crowd pleaser Henry Butler, an authentic American roots prodigy and favorite for whom any genre over-specificity is impossible.

Butler is not only still around (he’s 64) and utterly inimitable in pleasing crowds and combining neo-New Orleans jazz, R&B and bebop, but he’s turned out to be the musician picked to bring Impulse – one of the greatest of all labels in the history of jazz – back into prominence.

To put it blandly, Butler’s infectious Big Easy Fusion of second line rhythms, infectious R&B and instrumental solos that sound like gumbo-stuffed beboppers on Crescent City holiday, is not the kind of whoop-it-up audience-pleasing musical color for which Impulse was justly legendary. Bob Thiele’s Impulse was the label for some of best music of John Coltrane, Gil Evans, Charles Mingus and Sonny Rollins, as well as music of the post-Coltrane avant-gardists (Albert Ayler and Archie Shepp) who carried so many listeners into outright bewilderment (and still do).

If you’re an American with ears on either side of your head, you’re unlikely to exhibit any bewilderment listening to Henry Butler’s music with arranger and trumpet player Steven Bernstein – unless, that is, you’re listening to Butler’s “Buddy Bolden’s Blues” where the blind musician sings with a voice that sounds like a passionate cri de coeur from the vestibule of St. James’ Infirmary. When the lyrics are Bolden’s legendary New Orleans dance-fever plea of “funky butt, stinky butt, take it away,” it’s quite the biggest incongruity on the disc.

Not incongruous at all is the grand old time very hip jazz players are having in Butler and Bernstein’s party-down Hot 9 – saxophonists Peter Apfelbaum and Michael Blake, Marsalisite rhythm stalwarts Herlin Riley and Reggie Veal and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes.

For those musicians, a Henry Butler gig seems as much of a holiday as for his listeners.

– Jeff Simon

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