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 ::: Henry Bio :::

New Orleans native Henry Butler is a virtuoso jazz and a rhythm & blues pianist, a schooled vocalist naturally imbued with gospel credibility, a fierce performer and an expressive composer. "Once I sit at the keyboard, it’s right there," says the 51-year-old Butler. "I have an instrument on which I can express anything I want." Calling himself a perpetual "work in progress," Butler, a critically lauded jazz recording artist and an accomplished photographer (all the more startling considering Butler has been blind since infancy), returned to his roots with Blues After Sunset on Black Top Records, an album of straight ahead New Orleans piano blues.

Born in the musical hotbed of New Orleans, Louisiana, Butler was attracted to piano at a very young age. By the time he was seven, he had joined the glee club at the Louisiana School For The Blind, where he was already studying piano. He was playing r&b and gigging professionally by the time he was 14, and went on to study voice in high school. Butler attended Southern University in New Orleans; where he fell under the spell of jazz giant Alvin Batiste, who quickly became Butler's mentor. Batiste taught Butler how to improvise, and the importance of spontaneously playing what's in the mind’s eye. With Batiste’s help, Butler began adding the jazz legacy of Art Tatum, Bud Powell, Charlie Parker and John Coltrane to the Crescent City r&b he'd absorbed from Eddie Bo, Tommy Ridgley, James Booker and Professor Longhair.

After graduating from college, Butler plunged into performing around New Orleans, playing his own mix of jazz and r&b. He went on to earn a master’s degree from Michigan State University before returning to New Orleans in 1974. Once there, he began gigging with every important jazz and r&b musician in the city, including Charlie Haden and Batiste. While teaching at the New Orleans Center For The Creative Arts, Butler spent a few very intense afternoons in the living room of Professor Longhair, learning Fess’ shuffle patterns, trills and parallel thirds and sixths. "Fess showed me how he approached the piano and mainly taught by demonstrating," recalls Butler. "I listened and tried to emulate what he had shown me."

Butler moved to Los Angeles in 1980 where he gigged and worked as a talent development consultant for Motown Records and the Stevie Wonder organization. After sitting in with bassist Charlie Haden, Butler's fortunes changed. He recorded his first album, Fivin’ Around, for MCA/Impulse! in 1986. After a second MCA/Impulse! release, The Village, Butler’s reputation as an important force in the jazz world began earning him hordes of new fans. Critics raved about a virtuoso pianist who mixed soul with brains, and about a live performer who consistently knocked audiences off their feet with his lightning-fast runs. "Mr. Butler revels in fluency and facility, splashing chords all over the keyboard and streaking through solos with machine-gun articulation," said the New York Times. "Boldly straddling the boundary between down-home funk and jazz improvisation," added Billboard.

Butler recorded two albums for Windham Hill, 1990’s Orleans Improvisation and 1992’s Blues And More, before heading back to New Orleans in 1996. He released For All Seasons that same year on Atlantic Jazz, again to massive critical acclaim. He won the 1998 "Best Of The Beat" Award from Offbeat Magazine for Best New Orleans Piano Player, and continues to impress critics, fans and fellow musicians with his massive talents. Butler is committed to the blues and is excited about expanding the form in ways only he can. "Henry Butler is one of the artists laying the foundation for the 21st century," says Alvin Batiste of his former student. "Henry Butler is my all-time favorite musician," says pianist and recording artist George Winston.

The 1998 release of Blues After Sunset found Butler playing some of the most innovative and challenging piano blues since the heyday of Professor Longhair and James Booker. Drawing inspiration from 1920s stride piano, 1940s bebop, 1950s r&b and 1990s avant-garde, Butler brings his technical ability and soul-deep passion to all of his material. "He’s the pride of New Orleans and a visionistical down-home cat and hellified piano plucker to boot," raves one of Butler's most famous admirers, Dr. John.

Butler’s stride bass figures and swirling right hand have led at least one critic to describe him as "McCoy Tyner in the left hand, Professor Longhair in the right, the best stride-and-blues-based modernist you've ever heard." "Butler simply produces more ideas and commands more techniques for articulating and developing them than one is accustomed to hearing from a single artist," raved the Chicago Tribune.

While Butler no doubt appreciates the accolades, he’s always looking within himself for new sounds and ideas. "I like being in a place where I can pour out my soul," he says of his love of the blues form. And his return to his New Orleans blues roots already is giving friends, fans and critics something to enjoy for a long time to come.

 

 
 
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