Montreal-based pianist Taurey Butler, a native of East Orange, N.J., journeyed through Singapore, Thailand, drums, and horns before arriving at the piano, jazz, and his adopted city. On his recent trio recording One of the Others (Justin Time), he tells the story of this journey through 11 tunes, both originals and reimagined standards. It’s a story of migration and relocation, of finding a new home away from home, and of Butler’s roots as an African American.
The album art, created by Butler, demonstrates this as well. “I don’t have that artistic technique, but I knew the concept I wanted on the cover,” he told JT. Alluding to The Migration Series by Jacob Lawrence, it depicts “the migration of Black people from the southern U.S. to the north in search of jobs, opportunity and a more prosperous life. … It’s me in the lower left corner, heading north.”
Butler, 48, grew up listening to his father play drums with an R&B band, and at age seven began classical piano training. At 14 he was handed an Oscar Peterson recording by his perceptive bandleader; listening to Peterson opened Butler’s ears to what the piano could do. Moved and intrigued, he began digging into jazz harmony, melody, and solo improvisation. After graduating from Dartmouth—where he studied Japanese, majored in electrical engineering, and spent countless hours in the practice room—Butler returned to New Jersey to hone his craft. And after playing a jam session in New York, garnering attention for his dexterity and lyricism, he began booking gigs, eventually playing clubs and festivals around the world.
Following a long stint with Chicago bassist/vocalist Eldee Young in Asia, Butler was invited to play at Montreal’s House of Jazz. He’d been exploring the hometown of Peterson, his greatest idol, and finally decided to move there, playing the club three nights a week for 10 years. He also accompanied Juno Award-winning vocalist Ranee Lee, and in 2011 released his self-titled debut on Justin Time.
Now a prominent figure on the Montreal jazz scene, Butler regularly plays the city’s main clubs, including Dièse Onze and Upstairs Bar and Grill, as well as the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, and he recently accompanied saxophonist Nicole Glover at the new Saint-Henri jazz festival. Thanks to his innate swing, breakneck speed, seemingly effortless technique, and imaginative sourcing of the music, Butler has been compared to Peterson as well as McCoy Tyner and other piano luminaries.
One of the Others’ official launch—two sold-out sets at the intimate Upstairs on a crisp autumn night—featured the personnel on the album: Michigan-born, Montreal-based drummer Wali Muhammad (Oliver Jones, Jeri Brown, the Metropolitan Orchestra) and gifted Montreal bassist Morgan Moore. “This is my first album in 10 years,” Butler noted from the bandstand. Why so long? “I didn’t want to just release another record without anything tying the songs together,” he said, launching full steam into the joyous title track.
“Like most people, I take the culture and the roots of the things that I’ve learned with me wherever I go. This album was a perfect follow-up to my first album,” Butler later told JT. “I’ve had time to reflect and get to know Montreal better, and those experiences are what the album is based on.”
The funky “Sisyphean Task” elicited some headbanging from the audience. “There were some good things too, starting over in Montreal,” Butler noted. Cole Porter’s “What Is This Thing Called Love” took an angular, Monk-ish turn; the tender “Laini’s Love,” written for Butler’s mother, conveyed a depth of intensely felt emotion.
“Without you, this is just a rehearsal,” said Butler, thanking the crowd before closing with the vigorous “On the Natch.” Heading out, I caught up with a Swiss audience member, all smiles. What did he appreciate about the concert? “They played so together,” he said. “So imaginative and inspired.”