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Butler Bernstein and The Hot 9

Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9

An artistic collision destined to happen! Ever since New Orleans singer and pianist Henry Butler settled in Brooklyn, it was only a matter of time before the gifted pianist and vocalist hooked up with retro-futurist trumpeter and bandleader Steven Bernstein. Blind since birth, master musician, pianist and vocalist Henry Butler tells stories through the rise, swing, and rumble of his fingers as they channel sounds as diverse as his Louisiana birthplace: jazz, Caribbean, classical, pop, blues and R&B, among others. The combination of trumpeter/maestro Steven Bernstein and the fiery unit they call the Hot 9, use a traditional New Orleans palate as their launching point; exploring everything from early 20thcentury blues to thoughtful and exhilarating improvisations on the Crescent City canon.

The two first worked together in 1998 in the Kansas City Allstars-a touring big band led by Bernstein that came out of the Robert Altman film of the same name. The two reunited in 2011 to perform a special, one-off concert at a blues festival in New York City. The material they chose to do that day-the “classic” blues of Bessie Smith, the first-generation jazz of Jelly Roll Morton, and other similar tunes-clicked and resonated in way neither had expected. “We’ll do something like this again,” Bernstein remembered them promising each other.

Both are dedicated students of early jazz-favoring the hot arrangements and danceable rhythms that came before the advent of big bands. Butler is a scion of the long line of piano professors for which New Orleans is famous, steeped in a tradition that finds equal value in present-day, R&B-flavored workouts along with timeless spirituals and ballads like “St. James Infirmary.” Then there’s that “Latin tinge”-the Caribbean syncopation that runs through New Orleans’s musical tapestry.

In his own fashion, Bernstein also juggles a forward-looking perspective with a rooted sense of what’s come before. Chief among the varied groups he has led or been part of is the Millennial Territory Orchestra- a.k.a. “MTO”- a nine-piece ensemble that draws tunes and inspiration from the dance orchestras that traveled throughout southern and western United States before World War II.

Historical explorers they may be; neither Butler nor Bernstein can avoid incorporating the most modern and freer edge of today’s jazz expression into their music. Each has found ways of balancing past and future in their respective musical signatures. “Steve’s got this modern touch in his playing and his arrangements, avant-garde and beyond,” says Butler. Bernstein laughs and shakes his head: “I call Henry a space-traveler/historian.”

The music that Butler, Bernstein, and the Hot 9 have created together is filled with modern flavors, agile arrangements and a vitality that never allows the historical focus to limit itself to mere recreation.

“We’re not trying to replicate New Orleans music or old-time blues,” says Bernstein. “We’re all musicians who have come out of other experiences, many of us in New York like working with Don Cherry and Wynton Marsalis and Lou Reed and Levon Helm. We’re taking that and then using the framework of Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller.”

It’s a balance that happens naturally in jazz and speaks to the happy, unpredictable nature of the music. Sometimes a collaboration is just meant to be.