The latest resurrection of the Impulse! imprint begins on the perfect note, with the retro-modern jazz-blues joint Viper’s Drag, by co-leaders Henry Butler and Steven Bernstein and their band the Hot 9. “Retro” because they draw on the oldest corners of the jazz tradition, pulling out pieces by Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller alongside some Butler originals; “modern” because of the sensibilities with which the veteran New Orleans pianist and singer (Butler) and the iconoclastic trumpeter and bandleader (Bernstein) infuse these nine tunes. Close your eyes and you could be anywhere, anytime: New Orleans circa 1920s, Kansas City circa 1940s, New York circa 2014.
On a game-changing arrangement of Waller’s “Viper’s Drag,” which opens the disc, a minute-plus of controlled chaos gives way to an Ellington-influenced segment that segues to a brief stride passage that leads to an early/late New Orleans jazz mash-up and then concludes with a stunning piano solo. The whole band (which features a few of Wynton Marsalis’ go-to players, including bassist Reginald Veal and drummer Herlin Riley), personifies the Bayou tradition, past and present, from the second-line stylings of Butler’s “Dixie Walker” to his racing-backbeat-driven “Henry’s Boogie.”
Funk, Dixieland and even a touch of salsa thrive alongside one another on an ingenious update of Morton’s “Wolverine Blues,” and the big-band tradition is renewed with an ever-shifting rhythm on his “King Porter Stomp.” Butler’s stunning playing gets a good deal of the spotlight, and his soulful vocals (which are not nearly as spectacular as his fingers) take turns on “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” “I Left My Baby”—whose intro gets a mild reggae treatment—and “Some Iko,” a reworking of “Iko Iko.” Bernstein doesn’t do much soloing, but his real value here is his arranging, which is at least half the reason this disc is so good: It’s steeped in the past, but nothing about it feels old.