It's A Johnny Butler Two-Fer! Solo and Fracture (by Scurvy)

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by S. Victor Aaron

The other day for the first time I heard a song by a certain female vocalist who had just won a Grammy (or maybe 6 or 7 Grammies, for all I know). The only thing I really remember about the song is that her voice was obviously auto-tuned. I thought how odd it was for someone whose voice was obviously good enough to get a record deal and sell a bunch of records still required some technological help to keep her supposedly golden pipes from getting out of tune. Regrettably, sometimes technology is used as a crutch to cover up shortcomings in artistry.

Luckily, technology can also be used to bring out the artistry in some musicians, too. That’s the vibe I get from listening to the debut record by Johnny Butler, called simply Solo.

Butler, who studied with the likes of Vijay Iyer, Gary Bartz and Billy Hart after graduating from Oberlin Conservatory, built a record using only his tenor saxophone, but it’s hardly a spare-sounding record because of his use of looping effects. We first examined a recording using this technique by another horn player, Robin Eubanks. This trombonist showed us the endless possibilities offered by endless looping. In front of a live audience, Eubanks created perfectly round repeating figures that he layered on the fly as his rhythm section expanded upon and Eubanks himself improvised over. This went beyond mere gimmick as it needed inventiveness to conceptualize a mosaic of sounds that come together so fluently and a good sense of timing to spin layers that perfectly sync up.

Johnny Butler does the same thing, too, only he doesn’t rely on the augmentation of a rhythm section. I doubt Butler even expressly used Eubanks as his boilerplate, either. Looping technique have been around for decades, and Robert Fripp of King Crimson fame had long ago mastered it in a live setting. Butler records his loops live, too, although only one performance (“Glitch”) was recorded outside the studio.

“Cathedral,” explicitly inspired by Fripp’s “Cathedral Of Tears” (A Blessing Of Tears, 1995) is filled with spacey textures that fade in and out like a passing astral vessel, resembling synthesizers more than extemporaneously dubbed over saxophones. Resembling a bit like Jean-Luc Ponty’s “Eulogy For Oscar Romero,” Butler does a masterful job subtly applying more coating to his sonic paint job until the resulting mosaic sounds like a choir of saxophones. This song is about texture more than the other ones, and on that count, he has it down. “Katrina” is more traditional and organic. Over a simple but spiritual chart of saxes double or triple tracked, Butler adds a harmonizing line of saxes and then solos over it all with a sorrowful tone. “Glitch,” the one recorded before an audience, bleats like a low humming siren, using some clever start/stop looping techniques that coalesces the competing and countering noises into a coherent song. “Eulogy” emulates the sparse, lonely feel of “Cathedral,” but with tones that are harder than the sleek sounds of the prior tune.

With only four tracks clocking in collectively at only around 24 minutes, Solo might better qualify as an EP. No matter. It’s perfect for when a mind-blowing experience is called for and there’s less than half an hour available.

Solo hits the streets today.

BONUS: Butler doesn’t always perform alone. He heads up a band of punk-jazz misfits called Scurvy, and simultaneous to recording Solo last year, Butler and his crew taped Scurvy’s first album, Fracture. Scurvy adds Ryan Snow (trombone), Adam Caine (guitar), Russ Wimbish (bass) and Jason Nazary (drums). This is where jazz lunges head first into the mosh pit and their carefree, experimental bent breaks all the rules about the music of Armstrong and Ellington. It’s unpredictable, in-your-face and often rocks hard with unstoppable riffs. The use of studio effects didn’t stop with Solo, as they’re often found alongside unadorned straight performances (contrast the weird, droning noises of “Side A Is Dead” with the raw unhinged energy of “Inversion” that immediately follows it, for example). Other times, the two sides are blended together, most wonderfully amidst the relentless roundhouse punches that are thrown on “Chime In.” Fractured, out later this spring, will be released on UK-based Hi4Head Records.

Purchase: Scurvy – Fracture (not yet available, check Johnny Butler’s website for news about its release and availability)

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at svaaron@somethingelsereviews .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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