Henry Butler is one of the last living masters of New Orleans music, a pianist whose formidable technique is used to conjure the sound of both past and future. Deep-rooted traditions are on full display, but the music Butler is making in 2016 with trumpeter Steven Bernstein and the Hot 9 calls upon so many of them at once, ancient and modern alike, it could only exist today. It’s a band whose idea of “standards” to play at a Mardi Gras party includes Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round In Circles” along with nods to Professor Longhair and Allen Toussaint. It’s also a band capable of delivering a version of a King Oliver track from the 1920s that felt like the most modern thing on the set list. And at the center is Butler himself, a magnificent improviser and team player, giving one of the most unbelievable piano performances I’ve seen in my life.
Most of the songs began with a long solo improvisation from Butler, incorporating melodies from other songs, impressionistic runs out of Ravel, and straight up barrelhouse boogie, before kicking the rhythm section into gear. He packs complex and abstract ideas into what is essentially feel-good music, the mark of a true Orleanian. He pushes as far to the edge as Monk and McCoy Tyner, but a romping left-hand line worthy of Jelly Roll Morton is never far away.
Bernstein and his band give Butler the freedom to take it anywhere he wants, shape-shifting to their leader’s whims. Drummer Donald Edwards directed the pace, setting up second-line popcorn accents behind every groove. And violinist Charlie Burnham was a standout soloist, lyrical and adventurous.
The night ended with, what else, a parade down the aisles of Royce Hall incorporating the members of opening act Red Baraat, a Bhangra-inspired brass band out of Brooklyn. Their own opening set had its moments, showing high levels of musicianship and natural energy. The press blurb I saw described them as a “party band” which made me think about what LMFAO Unplugged might sound like. But with that as my expectation, I’d say they surpassed it. They do indeed sound like the kind of band you’d want to play at your party, particularly when they get your friends to have a little dance contest in front of everyone, which is always a barrel of laughs.