• 2008
  • PiaNOLA
  • Henry Butler
  • Basin Street Records


Uprooted from the Big Easy in 2005 after the loss of his home to the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, dazzling pianist Henry Butler obviously left his heart in New Orleans. PiaNOLA is a compilation of New Orleans-based tunes dating from the mid-1980s to the present, recorded at various locales. Butler’s own compositions are teamed with classics penned by Alvin Batiste, Billy Preston, Allen Toussaint, and “Fess” himself, Professor Longhair (Henry Roeland Byrd).

The quality is uniformly high. Butler is one of those artists whose enthusiasm is pervasive and undeniable. He just sounds like he’s having a great time. Innovation as well as technique are his distinguishing characteristics; like a great actor, what he does is often startling and unexpected, yet completely appropriate and revelatory. He lives in the area where talent borders on genius. His left and right hands perform independent but congruent dances, and the music soars.

My personal favorites of the album are the slower songs, especially renditions of “You Are My Sunshine” and “Old Man River.” The high point arrives with Butler’s version of Fess’s classic, “Tipitina.” Don’t mess with that N.O. gem, you might think; nobody can or should challenge Fess’s original. Well, Butler’s nine minute homage to the Professor, featuring a myriad of tempo, chord, and lyric changes, is a beautiful leap of invention.

However, nobody is perfect, and Butler’s singing reveals limitations. Ranging from tenor to baritone, he prowls the octaves and reaches for emotions sometimes beyond his vocal prowess. When he is more subdued, especially on the slower ballads, he is more compelling. His version of “Dock of the Bay” is a noble effort, but makes poignant the loss of Otis Redding.

The CD clocks in at a hefty 65 minutes, with useful liner notes by Larry Blumenfeld and “song notes” by jazz and new age pianist George Winston, who co-produced the album with Butler. Well done!

[This review initially appeared on the BluesWax Web site.]