Vocalist and guitar player Jonathan Butler has been labelled as many different things during his musical career; contemporary jazz musician, R&B songwriter, lyricist and vocalist or gospel singer. On Wednesday night at the Cobb Energy Performing Arts Centre he will perform as the “Soul” in a double billing with “Satin” David Sanborn. The audience will get the chance to decide for themselves exactly which label best fits Jonathan Butler and his musical style.
Jonathan Butler is in Atlanta for “Satin and Soul,” the final show in the 2012-13 JAZZ ROOTS series, four shows that combine public performances by leading jazz musicians with local community outreach programs led by those musicians and benefitting local area high school jazz music students.
I had the chance to chat with Jonathan Butler about a number of things including the innovative JAZZ ROOTS series, its dual focus on live performance and focus on community outreach, and which of those identifying labels with which he most identifies.
Over the span of a career that has lasted more almost 40 years, Butler has released 17 albums, been nominated for 2 Grammy awards, and has spent an incredible amount of time on the contemporary jazz charts for his various compositions.
Followers of more popular music will probably not be aware that Butler was a child star in South Africa, and the first black artist whose records were played on the radio in that country under its racially oppressive apartheid government. He relocated to London as a teenager and lived for more than a dozen years before relocating to the United States where his career has blossomed.
His considerable experience of three different countries and their cultures contributes to his unique musical perspective and style. Long time friend Carl Griffin, a jazz producer, recognized those attributes and determined Butler and his considerable musical skills and experiences would make him an ideal choice as one of the JAZZ ROOTS series musicians.
Butler is performing at the Cobb Energy Centre on the same bill as Saxophone playing legend, David Sanborn. He doesn’t know if he and David Sanborn will be on stage at the same time but always relishes the opportunity to be on the same bill as a man he has always admired and whose music he has always enjoyed.
“It’s a dream come true for me, I’ve bought Sanborn’s records since I was a teenager, it’s a real privilege and a honor to share the stage with him.”
Would it a little intimidating to play with someone of Sanborn’s stature, someone he’s held in such high regard for so long?
“I love David Sanborn, I’ve played on stage with him several times before. Anything in G can be do-able, anything in C can be do-able so we’ll see, if it happens, it happens!” He responded with a laugh.
As part of the JAZZ ROOTS series emphasis on community outreach, Butler will be holding a master-class at Tri-Cities High School in East Point. He is comfortable in this environment and hopes that he can introduce the aspiring jazz musicians to a little of what has driven him as he has followed his passion.
Asked about the structure of the day he replies, “It’s a lot of different things, it’s Q&A, it’s playing; I’d like to know what their feelings, desires and passions are, and of course to show them my perspective and musical background and how that cultural background, has influenced the way I hear, feel and play music.”
In addition to his hectic live schedule Jonathan Butler recently released a new album. It’s called “Grace and Mercy” and is a personal reflection of his relationship with God. The album has a strong South African feel to it but also has some R&B style songs on it. Overall though it is characterized by compelling melodies, and some simple, and yet profound, lyrics and Butler happily identifies his favorite song, “Moments of Worship” a medley of his favorite hymns completely stripped down to their most rudimentary core and a song that’s beautiful in its simplicity.
“It’s a bunch of songs that are my favorite hymns that I’ve tied together,’ he explained, ‘It’s just me playing piano and guitar, it’s just me sitting in the lounge and pressing record. It just came up really, really beautiful.”
He has also just finished recording a Christmas album that comprises his interpretations of a variety of standards including a South African stylized version of “Sleighride.” In support of that album and, as part of the 2013-14 JAZZ ROOTS series Jonathan Butler will be back in Atlanta, at the Cobb Energy Centre, in early December with Dave Koz.
With regards to the labels that some people have liked to attach to his music over the years, Butler is quick to point out, “I just love music. My background in music is straight from South Africa. I love jazz and gospel, I love R&B, I love world music.
“The gospel side is more of a way of life, a calling, a spiritual relationship that I have had with God in my own personal way for 30 years.”
“In terms of music, I’ve been able to do what I love without putting a label on it.”
On Wednesday night Jonathan Butler will just play music, without labels. It should be a great night.