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June 2008

Henry Butler
PiaNOLA Live
Basin Street Records

The final cut on this collection of live recordings, drawn from tapes salvaged in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, finds New Orleans pianist Henry Butler performing “North American Idiosyncrasies.” A leisurely paced blues composed by Alvin Batiste, it’s a fitting coda to an album that derives so much of its charm, energy and personality from Butler’s own stylistic eccentricities.

Of course, the Crescent City has been home to numerous pianists who’ve stood out by virtue of their curiously animated technique, including Professor Longhair, who inspires Butler’s delightfully kinetic performance of “Tipitina” here. A thoroughly re-imagined interpretation that moves from solemn chords to percussive, knotty runs to Longhair-ish cross-rhythms (all before Butler sings the first verse), the rendering is punctuated by a sweeping improvisation laced with rippling single-note flurries and resounding left-hand chords.

Featuring recordings that date back to the ’80s, PiaNOLA Live covers a lot of ground. Rhythmically fitful and harmonically tweaked, the solo performances are inspired by everything from early jazz (“Basin St. Blues”) and show tunes (“Old Man River”) to vintage country ballads (“You Are My Sunshine”), seminal New Orleans R&B (“Mother-in-Law”), a Stax classic (“Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay”) and a comparatively recent Butler/Corey Harris-penned blues romp (“Let It Roll”). All of the arrangements have fanciful touches, some more than others, but even when Butler appears on the verge of tossing in the kitchen sink, his keyboard rhapsodies are charged with an air of spontaneity and a ton of funk.

Originally published in June 2008
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