Billy Butterfield with Andy Bartha: Take Me to the Land of Jazz

Andy Bartha
Take Me to the Land of Jazz

Billy Butterfield’s versatility gets passing reference in Bob Koester’s as ever excellent notes to this set from when, in his early 50s, he was still in his prime.

Principal deputy trumpeter of the NBC Symphony Orchestra 60 years ago, with two other major contemporaries, Yank Lawson and Bobby Hackett, he played in the American premiere of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes under Leonard Bernstein, who hoped American music theatre might develop more along the lines of that opera. After that evening, Hackett (a superlative musician whose pals easily taught him the part so he could earn the freelance fee — he was a poor reader) said he had almost fainted when the page was turned and great black clouds and swarms of notes appeared, which Butterfield play at sight flawlessly without rehearsal.

He was a major virtuoso, and on one legendary gig when the mouthpiece was out of his trumpet he said something like, “who the hell needs a mouthpiece anyway!” and proceeded to play without it.

After I saw him for what turned out to be the last time, I found he’d spent the whole day in the (to him) foreign city looking for a pharmacy, to meet his understandable desire to breathe a bit before his evening gig with other veteran employees of Benny Goodman. I’d no idea he’d spent the day wheezing through emphysema, probably a result of his blazing performance the night before.

The last five titles on this CD are from 1969, the year before Butterfield played the hotel gigs with a slightly later version of the Andy Bartha band, a serious musical organization whose music isn’t drastically misrepresented by the term “Dixieland”.

“Traditional” is better, not in a sense of endlessly re-chuntering-out ever the same (which turns out to be ever the more fixedly, familiarly stolid expression of complacency) but a matter of specifics. The guys who played a lot of this music for the first time — King Oliver, Kid Ory, Honor√© Dutrey — knew how to play it. So do the guys here, but confronted by important issues of musicality and conscience which doesn’t bother Dixieland instrumentalists whose measure is what the public let them off with. It’s a matter of avoiding pastiche and cheap tricks, as when the late Bruce Turner was gigging with a sort of band pretending to be like Bartha’s. In the middle of one number the leader advised Turner that at a point coming up soon the band always went into a hack routine. He said, “doo-wacka, doo, Bruce”. Bruce said “doo-wacka-don’t!”

Other than Bartha, a cornetist who came up during the 1940s revival of 1920s jazz, both groups include John Dengler and Larry Wilson. Dengler has performed on trumpet, trombone, and vibes, and here plays bass saxophone, an undangerous brass anaconda mastered in the 1920s by Adrian Rollini, who also played vibes and was a jazz original who inspired baritone saxophonists. Dengler’s solos are mellow; Wilson’s more exciting. His style’s not legit; it’s not adverse criticism to say his phrasing stiffens when heated, for their excitement’s what matters, not fluidity. On the classical solo clarinet passages of “High Society” — the repertoire’s almost all 1920s jazz standards — he takes his first one in lower-register, sounding reedy, and on the second excitement pings off the rigidities of his stylistic integrity.

The band with added Butterfield does a “St. Louis Blues” with elements of shuffle rhythm and anticipations of the boogaloo which came some years later into Rebirth Brass band and non-pastiche performances of the New Orleans marching band repertoire which isn’t wholly distinct from what Bartha’s bands played.

I may be wrong, but I think Eddie Hubble was still gigging in 2004, aged 85. Aged 50 with Bartha and Butterfield he played bold New Orleans trombone counterpoint lines in ensemble, with Kid Ory’s felicitous freedom from needless subtlety. The opening tune, the rare unusual one, is “Dese, Dem and Dose”, composed by another trombone roughneck called Glenn Miller who later became less interesting. Reminiscences of it creep into various Hubble solos. When into his stride Hubble here was perhaps inspired by Butterfield’s presence to solo in more the style of a trumpeter. On “That’s a Plenty” he has ample ensemble work, but still manages the closest transcription of prime Louis Armstrong I’ve ever heard on trombone.

The trumpet-cornet Butterfield-Bartha lead is a direct descendant of the two-cornet lead pioneered by King Oliver with very young Louis Armstrong and adds counterpoint and colour, a hard thing for the first guys to do it and never easy. Bartha is a solid front-line cornetist, who can apply a little saw-edge when heat’s needed. Butterfield was such a musician there’s no sense of his being in a different class, other than in the odd miraculous flourish in the course of choruses trading fours. “Mama’s Gone, Goodbye” includes a distinguished trumpet-cornet duet, Butterfield using his own rough edge and sometimes simulating it with brilliant fast flaring. Bartha’s his own man, the cornet-trumpet interplay on “Basin Street Blues” is remarkable, followed by his solo and an especially lyrical one by Hubble, Dengler quite moving and Butterfield making resourceful use of space.

The uncredited vocal on “St. James Infirmary” is one supposes OK, but the passion and musicality of the instrumentalists are very striking. This is full of little distinctions and is here being reviewed by someone who hasn’t had the chance to listen to much of the kind for some time. Like traditional music for ensembles which is of any complexity it has routines, but the extent of non-routine playing is refreshing. An umpteenth play-through has brought me back again to the two front-liners’ interplay on “St. Louis Blues” and the preaching intro to Pastor Humble’s sermo-solo. The ending is driven by Butterfield in reminiscence of a Louis Armstrong trumpet miracle 40 years earlier, the rhythm section co-operates — efficient and never plodding — and after the intensity of that, the passion with which “Sugar Blues” opens and the plausibility of Wilson’s clarinet argument for being soothed, well, I’ll also keep an eye open for more examples of Eddie Hubble’s trombone.

RATING 6 / 10