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Henry Butler & the Charles Brown Band

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HENRY BUTLER & THE CHARLES BROWN BAND

I'm not the first to notice the parallels between marvelous blues pianist and vocalist Charles Brown and his contemporary Nat "King" Cole. They were crosstown rivals for a time in Los Angeles, and each brought the sunny, spacious feel of the west coast to a style of music with roots further east. Each had an instantly recognizable voice and a precocious flair for what we now call "crossover"--Cole played a blues-infected brand of swing-era jazz, Brown a casual, jazz-inflected version of the blues. And each nurtured a long-term relationship with an intimate, versatile combo. Though Brown died early this year, the band he led throughout the 90s has hooked up with New Orleans pianist and singer Henry Butler, who happens to have spent over a decade in LA himself. Butler's voice doesn't dive as deep as Brown's did, but his range still bottoms out below the baritone basement with a barrel-chested John Henry roar; his busy blues playing lacks Brown's gracious patience, but it sometimes delivers an emotional shock that can bring an audience to its feet. Though he has better jazz credentials than Brown, Butler could still learn a thing or two from the late bluesman's band--like how to restrain his flying fingers to better mesh with sensitive and exacting supporting musicians. Guitarist Danny Caron's chomp-chomp rhythms and lucid, sparkling solos perfectly complemented Brown's nuanced piano, and bassist Ruth Davies walks every blues line with a creativity honed by the complexity of jazz; playing with drummer Gaylord Birch (replaced on this tour by Deszon Claiborne), she anchors a rhythm section as lithe and flexible as any blues band's. Butler could easily make this show a tribute, focusing on Brown's warm, eclectic repertoire, but I don't expect him to stop there: he has enough good tunes in his own book (some of them originals) to teach the band a few new tricks in turn. Local vocalist Jackie Allen opens the show. Saturday, 7:30 PM, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave.; 773-728-6000. Sunday at 11 AM Butler gives a workshop on the evolution of American music, also at the Old Town School. Neil Tesser

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Marc PoKempner.

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