The Oberlin Review
<< Front page Arts March 10, 2006

New Sublime Stylings of Johnny Butler Surprise
Senior Saxophonist Tackles New Musical Frontiers

If his senior recital is any indication, senior Johnny Butler is mellowing out. If anyone came to the Cat in the Cream last Thursday night anticipating an evening filled with the atonal free jazz that Oberlin has come to expect from Butler, they were probably a little surprised, but by the end of the night, they could not possibly have been disappointed.

Over the course of his four years at Oberlin, Butler has developed a reputation in the jazz department for challenging conventional standards of performance. He admitted, “I usually wind up taking this rebel pose. For a while, I kind of positioned myself with a kind of a postmodern [out]look. I wanted to change things, and not do things that had already been done.

“But I kind of had a change of heart over the last couple of months,” Butler continued. “There’s no need for me to rebel against things I like. You know, in Indian music there’s no concept of music progressing from generation to generation; it’s more like people just... playing. And [my recital] is kind of a reflection of that.”

Butler has always enjoyed the power of making a musical statement but, at his recital, it was evident that he has come to some kind of new peace. Its effects on his playing were unmistakable. Thursday night was an amazing demonstration of the possibilities that can result from creativity and imagination in the context of a vibrant tradition.

The concert opened with “I’ve Known Rivers,” a tune by Butler’s saxophone teacher, Gary Bartz. Bassist first-year Chris Mees started the song with a simple, relaxed bass line, then Butler entered with the melody – expressive, thoughtful and freshly beautiful. The word soulful came to mind in a brand new way. In improvising, Butler carefully danced in and out of tonality, playfully introducing chromaticism, then sliding back into the simple beauty that characterized the main melody. Senior drummer Kassa Overall played with a great, tasty, delicate aesthetic, holding back and holding down the sweet groove.

Next, Butler played his arrangement of the Frank Loesser standard “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” It began with a moody bass pedal under a slick groove; then his saxophone appeared, sparse and airy, with a tender treatment of the well-known melody. Overall played with the tempo, slowing all the way down and then speeding up for the return of the melody; he had the audience transfixed and giggling.

After a restatement of the head, Butler launched into an improvisation that was full of forward motion, while Overall responded with encouraging kicks and interjections in the background. Drums and saxophone stretched rhythms over the bar lines, exploring the rhythmic possibilities. Butler took some imaginative risks in his solo, moving up and down through sequences, perhaps to such an extent that the band arrived at a slightly confused ending.

Then, Butler performed John Coltrane’s notorious “Giant Steps,” a benchmark tune for jazz players because of its unusual root motion, which moves in major thirds. Butler changed the harmonic rhythm of the piece to replace two measures of eight beats with a bar of seven and a bar of nine. This gave an angular, jagged effect to a tune that already jumped around quite a lot, but Overall tapped into the innate funk of the rhythmic arrangement and used this to give the tune a real groove.

Butler’s solo actually seemed strangely formulaic; “Giant Steps” has a way of compelling the improviser to play certain prescribed patterns. After finishing this number, Butler said, “I’m glad that’s over. Now we can go on and play some real music.” The audience laughed, unsure how to respond to his half-serious sarcasm.

On Butler’s composition, “Katrina,” Mees played an extended, unaccompanied solo that explored syncopated rhythms and interesting intervallic jumps. When Butler came back in for his solo, he proved how true his spirit is to this music. He played melodies that were “out” in the sense that they seemed to have not been played on normal notes, but they were so immediately present that they washed over the heart in a flood of emotion. Butler compared “Katrina” to a tune on John Coltrane’s album Crescent. Coltrane’s spirit was definitely in the room.

If the music had a top that was keeping everything inside, Butler took it off and released whatever was contained therein. Freedom is the word for such a sensation — the understanding of possibility, the sweet universal union of the out and the in, the exterior and the interior, the avant-garde and tradition. The sense of such possibility fortifies fellow musicians with the courage to create small, beautiful things, and to perform strange, sincere and wonderful music.

The last tune of the evening was another of Butler’s compositions, called “On the John,” which proved to be a wacky little blues piece. Mees began walking a playful, lopsided bass line, often displacing the meter and interpolating half-steps.

Butler’s solo was outlandish; it was hyperbolic speech translated through the saxophone. He developed a narrative, thinking out loud and responding to his own quirky comments. Everything was related and jumbled up in a big conversational pot: soul spoke to blues which responded to honk which spoke to squeal which screamed at swing.

Asked if his recital was a reflection on his time at Oberlin, Butler replied, “It’s more like looking ahead, looking at the future for me, personally.” After graduating, he plans to move to New York City to teach and play music – with integrity and style, one can no doubt anticipate.


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