“Wow, jazz is fun music!”
It’s a bummer that we don’t hear that sentence spoken more often. But the latest from jazz madcap-magician Steven Bernstein and New Orleans pianist Henry Butler ought to coax those words from anyone’s lips. Bernstein and Butler first paired up in 1998 when Bernstein was leading a band that came out of the music for Robert Altman’s Kansas City movie, and they reunited three years ago to make joyous noise derived from early jazz compositions.
Viper’s Drag reprises that idea, with Butler’s finger’s flying all over material by Fats Waller, Jelly Roll Morton, and himself, and with Bernstein having crafted arrangements for an eleven-piece band that rags and romps and rolls with kick-ass joy. It’s old music made fresh with energy and imagination. Although Bernstein sometimes slathers some avant-garde freedom atop the tradition, here the vocabulary of the band remains highly tonal. But this is not a period piece, quite. Butler plays like a New Orleans master who knows his modern jazz just fine, thanks, but here he is glorying something different. Bernstein’s little-big band is right with him, loud and loose and well aware of rhythm-and-blues and rock and funk even as they evoke the past.
Many of the tunes on Viper’s Drag knowingly mix music that is very up-to-date with other passages that glint with the rhythms or styles of early jazz. The arrangements are so intelligent, however, that the songs don’t sound like mash-ups. Inherent in both Butler’s piano style and Bernstein’s arrangements is a unity of yesterday and today.
The opening to Butler’s “Henry’s Boogie” is good old rock ’n’ roll, with a strong and simple backbeat coming from drummer Herlin Riley. But when Butler’s right hand riffs, we hear some Professor Longhair as well as James P. Johnson. The baritone solo by Erik Lawrence could be on an early rock record for sure. Is it jazz? It’s that too, but the kind you dance to, no finger-snapping please.
Three songs by Jelly Roll Morton form the backbone of Viper’s Drag, and “Wolverine Blues” is a highlight that music teachers ought to play for every student who wants to understand why jazz means something in today’s musical world. Bernstein’s arrangement starts with a minute that takes a riff or two from the Morton tune and turns them into an interlocking funk groove that swaggers like something on hip hop radio. Then Butler segues the band into a traditional New Orleans arrangement of the tune, with glorious improvised counterpoint, snappy piano breaks, high features for clarinet, a stop-time section for tenor saxophonist Michael Blake that raises hairs of happiness on your neck, and then a section that appropriates a Latin rhythm that hints at vintage 1950s Cuban music. Does it cap off with a few sections of Bernstein’s hyper-modern funk? Of course, and lesson delivered.
“Kind Porter’s Stomp” (another Morton tune) starts out sounding like modern players in the bag of the older tune, but Bernstein plugs in a slick bit of arrangement at the three-minute mark: a backbeat-heavy section that sounds like ‘60s soul, as if “Hit the Road, Jack” met a TV detective theme song, and then BOOM, man, you’re back to Jelly Roll. Except that when Butler takes the tune out with a solo piano section, you realize that he was playing the same lick over the ‘60s-sh section. The title tune and opener starts with a Riley groove and Butler solo underpinned by a guitar obstinate that also rocks, with a transition to added time on later - same concept. Slick as can be, integrating it all so that you realize, again and again: It’s all one music, of course!
Henry Butler not only plays piano but also sings in a plaintive, New Orleans style. He stays largely within the old blues tradition on Morton’s “Buddy Bolden’s Blues”, a slow one that shows off Riley and bass player Reginald Veal (who both played with Wynton Marsalis during his most New Orleans-y period) as well as Charlie Turnham’s violin. I’m more a fan of the vocals on “I Left My Baby” (a hit of sorts for the Count Basie band), where the arrangement begins as modern piece of slithering funk before going into a minor swing. Butler sings the blues here, rubbery and expressive, like a Chicago singer riding atop a great territory swing band. Even better is what they all do with Butler’s closer, “Some Iko”, a tune that obviously takes the Crescent City staple “Iko Iko” and just lets it be a conversation between Butler’s singing, his wonderful imagination on the keyboard, and Bernstein’s festival of horns.
It is interesting to contrast this modern treatment of Waller and Morton with Jason Moran’s recent (post)modern Waller project in conjunction with MeShell Ndegeocello. Moran also refracted classic older tunes through a lens informed by soul music and modern jazz, but he employed more of the colors of contemporary music: electric keyboards, singing in a modern idiom, and a drum sound/production style from today’s music. None of Moran’s arrangements had moments you might mistake for vintage recordings, whereas Bernstein reaches back to use contrapuntal horn lines that would have been at home in recordings from the ‘20s or ‘30s.
Both approaches are valid, however, and they both leap across time in a way that reminds us that this American music is both many and one, an art form that comes from a specific African-American experience and aesthetic but is also larger and more pliant than it is narrow. What a glorious thing it is, with its offshoots in a thousand forms thriving all around the world, this music “invented” by Jelly Roll Morton and others, this gift to us all. Jazz lives, and it’s fun indeed.