New Orleans has produced more than its share of virtuoso pianists, dating back even before Jelly Roll Morton emerged at the turn of the previous century.
Remarkably, that lineage continues forth through today, nowhere more compellingly than in the work of Henry Butler, who achieves more with 88 keys than most mere mortals. Seated at the piano at SPACE, in Evanston, on Thursday evening, Butler segued easily among a range of jazz and blues techniques, offering a profusion of ideas linked by the fluidity of his technique and the fervency of his expression.
In fact, there may be no better way to hear Butler than alone at a keyboard, the pianist funneling all of that power and joy into a single instrument. The rare opportunity to catch him solo clearly proved attractive to Chicago-area listeners, who packed SPACE on an Arctic evening.
Indoors, the temperature rose just about as soon as Butler placed his fingertips on the keys, with a barreling account of "Rock Island Line." In this single composition, Butler summoned a lexicon of Crescent City piano methods: rumbling left-hand octaves, fast-flying right-hand figurations, deep-into-the-keys chords and rhapsodic phrases that transcended any sense of backbeat.
By constantly changing tempos – and often shifting abruptly from fast to slow and back again – Butler gave the music a storytelling quality that predictably elicited applause at key turning points. In essence, Butler was playing not just the piano but the audience, as New Orleans tradition demands.
The title of "Samba C" clearly suggests Brazilian music, but Butler hardly was confined to the vernacular of a single musical culture. For in addition to the gently swaying rhythms of South America, Butler tapped the flamenco idioms of Spain, the tango syntax of Argentina and the street beats of his native New Orleans. Beyond the rhythmic potpourri, "Samba C" underscored Butler's symphonic approach to the full span of the keyboard: He brought out particular sounds and colors the way a composer would assign themes to specific instruments in an orchestra.
And so it went, each tune conjuring another world of sound.
To salute the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' arrival in the United States, Butler offered a slow-tempo fantasia on "Eleanor Rigby," interrupting its famous phrases with flurries of trills, arpeggios and freely improvised passages. By quoting the funereal rhythm of a movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, Butler brought solemnity and grandeur to his reinvention of the Beatles' opus.
Scott Joplin's "The Entertainer" stands as a milestone in the evolution of American music, but that didn't mean that Butler was going to approach the piece with undue reverence.
"I have to forewarn all the purists in the house that it's not quite the way he wrote it," Butler said by way of introduction. Then he played the opening bars mostly as written before opening up the piece with original material and bravura technique. Joplin, who died in 1917, never would have heard this kind of freewheeling pianism, yet Butler's version stayed true to the ragtime underpinnings of the piece, which is what made his version so persuasive.
And when Butler began singing toward the end of the first set, accompanying his blues-drenched vocal lines with massive piano chords, listeners were hearing a musician of more facets than a single concert could fully contain.