Henry Butler's blues-based, New Orleans funk-style piano playing is not for every blues fan, to be sure. Butler is a local legend in New Orleans, but rarely tours other parts of the country; most any time of the year he can be found playing in one of New Orleans' famous night spots. It's not an exaggeration to say Butler is a piano genius who has yet to be discovered by the masses. His recordings demonstrate that he can do it all: he writes his own songs, does his own arrangements of classic tunes by Professor Longhair and others, and can play with as much passion as a soloist as he can with a band. What makes him great -- but admittedly difficult for record companies to market -- is that he constantly pushes himself in new directions as a musician. He can't be pigeonholed as blues, jazz, or even rock & roll, though he performs all three genres with impeccable taste, depth of understanding, and freshness of appreciation. Butler's playing also reflects influences like gospel and classic R&B.
Butler was born in New Orleans and first began playing piano at a neighbor's house when he was six. While attending the Louisiana State School for the Blind in Baton Rouge, he began taking piano lessons, also studying drums, baritone saxophone, and valve trombone. He began playing professionally when he was 14 in Baton Rouge clubs, and then attended college at Southern University in Baton Rouge. He later did postgraduate work at Michigan State University. Before graduating from college, Butler received a National Endowment for the Arts grant to study with Cannonball Adderley and his group of veteran musicians; he learned a lot from all of them, including pianist George Duke.
In the mid-'70s, he returned to New Orleans and found work as a voice teacher at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts. Butler then lived in Los Angeles and New York City for several periods of time, pursuing record deals. Butler credits jazz clarinetist Alvin Batiste with being a major influence on his career. When Butler was listening to Jimi Hendrix and Chicago, Batiste advised him to begin studying the music of John Coltrane and Charlie Parker, which enabled Butler to develop the great improvisational abilities he demonstrates in his performances today.
Butler has a number of albums to his credit, including Fivin' Around (1986, MCA/Impulse!), The Village (1988, MCA/Impulse!), Orleans Inspiration (1990, Windham Hill Jazz), Blues & More, Vol. 1 (1992, Windham Hill Jazz), and For All Seasons (1996, Atlantic). In 2000, he teamed with Corey Harris for the album Vu-Du Menz. Butler remained active with performing and recording during the new millennium -- his albums during the first decade of the 21st century have included several discs on the Basin Street Records label: 2002's The Game Has Just Begun, which some listeners regarded as a bit too heavy on the electronics; 2004's Homeland, regarded as a return to form; and PiaNOLA Live, a 2008 collection of solo piano performances recorded over the preceding two decades. Butler continued to support himself through private lessons and performances around the Crescent City, the latter exemplified by the independent release of Live at JazzFest in 2012.
Butler first met New York trumpeter/arranger Steven Bernstein (Sexmob, Millennial Territory Orchestra) in 1998 as members of the band in Robert Altman's film Kansas City. They re-teamed in 2011 to perform early 20th century blues and jazz at a N.Y.C. blues festival. In 2012, they played an extended run at the Jazz Standard, where producer Joshua Feigenbaum caught the act and convinced them to record. He produced Viper's Drag, billed to the pair with an all-star backing back called the Hot 9. The set was issued as the first title for a revived Impulse! in July of 2014. ~ Richard Skelly