It took a catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina to hammer into all of our consciences the significance of New Orleans as a cultural epicenter of the South, if not the entire country. Amid the horrifying images of death and neglect in a struggle for survival that is still very much ongoing, we were also reminded of what was nearly lost: Music. Jazz. Joy.
Henry Butler was nearly one of those victims. Blind since birth, he became a vital link in piano traditions that stem to pioneers like James Booker, Allen Toussaint and, most directly, Professor Longhair. The piano, under Butler’s fingers, communicates a sound steeped in boogie woogie, blues, gospel, jazz, R&B and wondrous permutations of those styles and inspirations.
Butler lost his house, instruments, sheet music and nearly all of his possessions in floods triggered by Katrina and New Orleans’ failed levees. Though he now lives in Colorado as another unintended Crescent City expatriate, the pianist has issued a sublime new solo concert recording that echoes the heartbeat of his homeland.
From the moment he is introduced by the celebrated Windham Hill pianist George Winston, a longtime and vocal champion of Butler’s music, and as PiaNOLA Live sails grandly into Basin St. Street Blues, we are reminded of a culture and music that is only now regaining its proper artistic legging following an epic natural disaster and the very human blunders that came in its wake.
PiaNOLA Live isn’t music of retribution, although Larry Blumenfeld’s informative liner notes suggest, half-jokingly, that Butler’s cover of the Billy Preston pop-soul hit Will It Go Round in Circles – served with fat, percussive phrasing and mischievous performance playfulness – might be a response to dealings with FEMA. Instead, the album is a simple celebration not only of New Orleans music, but its kinship with other soul sounds.
Dock of the Bay, the Otis Redding staple that is among the most established R&B hits of all time, is played by Butler with luscious gospel fervor. As such, we are forced to give a serious, renewed listen to the lyrics. Sure, we may still bask in the soothing escapism Redding initiated in the ‘60s. But against Butler’s more reverential piano rolls, we are clued into what else the song is about: loneliness, hopelessness and, get this, the loss of one’s home. Within this more severe reading, Butler’s vocals provide a hurricane force intensity of their own.
Lighter spirits are at work here, as well, from the one-man-band R&B harmonies created for Toussaint’s Mother-in-Law to the rich gumbo of funk, pop and stride melodies stuffed into the Butler original Orleans Inspiration.
But what is most stunning is that PiaNOLA Live is a scrapbook of live recordings. Some stem back to the 1980s while others are from last year. Yet the mood is so seamless that you never fully realize the specific impact Katrina had upon the music. You just know that Butler’s sense of soul and tradition, like New Orleans itself, has survived with its vitality intact.