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Baffling Butler 

New Orleans piano professor Henry Butler's playing often inspires the most exalted adjectives (dazzling, brilliant, majestic), and he's usually described in almost shaman-like terms, as a wizard or virtuoso. The combination of Butler's airtight technique and diverse musical training and background -- he studied classical piano and voice, worked for Motown, and was mentored by both Professor Longhair and legendary cornetist Cannonball Adderly -- often makes Butler's flights on the 88s resonate like a force of nature. Add Butler's sheer speed on the keys, and his solos sometimes sound like they're bursting at the seams, as if Butler himself can't reign in all the musical expertise at his disposal.

In a live setting, that high-wire act can be electrifying. In the studio, it presents a bigger challenge: how does a multi-faceted artist like Butler make an album that captures his wide range without sounding disjointed? In the past, Butler's primarily honed in on one particular style per album, like 1990's New Orleans funk- and R&B-flavored Orleans Inspiration, the straight-ahead jazz of 1996's For All Seasons, and the acoustic and electric blues of 1998's Blues After Sunset. On his new CD (and debut for Basin Street Records), The Game Has Just Begun, Butler lets his musical wanderlust flow -- and the result is one of the more bizarre albums in recent memory.

It starts out promisingly, with Butler expanding the bluesman persona he's cultivated in recent years. On the first three songs, Butler sings in his deepest and most defiant soul-shouter voice, on uptempo numbers where he establishes himself as a streetwise bad-ass who shouldn't be crossed. "This is Where I Live" is practically a challenge for a rival to fight, while "Mac Daddy Henry" is a mission statement of sorts, and a prime slice of Butler braggadocio, as he sings, "I don't play no games/I am the one they come to see/When I get my mojo workin'/They all seem to focus on me/Mac Daddy Henry, been to the mountain top/Nothing gonna make me stop." Guitarist June Yamagishi helps hammer home the bravado with some white-hot solos featuring some serious wah-wah effects and bends.

Stylistic detour No. 1 follows, as Butler heads toward Motown territory on "Tie Me Down," which features some clavinet and Moog sounds reminiscent of early-70s Stevie Wonder. Butler's eclectic approach starts to bubble up in a surprising version of former Gov. Jimmie Davis' classic "You Are My Sunshine." Butler extends his Stevie Wonder nod with his take on the country/pop standard, slipping in some breezy Wonder-style harmonica sounds, and including string-section samples.

Then things get very strange.

"Regeneration" is one of four original pieces on the album that fall into that innocuous "new age" category. Call it mood music, elevator music, whatever you will, but it just sounds downright odd here, as Butler generates dreamy pipe organ sounds with a percussive undertow evoking wind chimes and pan steel drums. "Fall Blues" takes a similar approach, and Butler even adds some banjo parts and monk-like chanting, sounding like the hum from some space-age assembly line. "When You Listen With Your Eyes" isn't quite as odd, but still straddles the line between smooth jazz and vapid contemporary R&B production. And while "Liberty Street Blues" hews to the blues form, it still swells like a glossed-over John Philip Sousa march, sounding like the background music you'd hear at the end of a corny made-for-TV movie.

It usually doesn't take much searching to find the culprit responsible for such questionable material; there's often a record company executive or manager lurking nearby who sees commercial potential in vapid musical exercises. But Butler is credited as producer on the album, and in a statement that suggests he can almost hear the outcry coming, he addresses the new age selections in the liner notes, saying that "The decision to include these on this record was very conscious."

One can only assume that the album's cover songs -- "Great Balls of Fire," "High Heeled Sneakers," and "Riders on the Storm" -- also fall under that mantra. "High Heeled Sneakers" works just fine, with Butler recasting it with a jaunty stride rhythm. But what possible good can a karaoke-style drum track add to "Great Balls of Fire"? And what's the motivation behind doing a faithful reading of The Doors' "Riders on the Storm"? Jim Morrison's lyrics still sound bloated and pretentious three decades later, and Ray Manzarek has never been known as a superb keyboardist, so what does Butler gain from recreating Manzarek's grating toy-piano keyboard melody?

Only Butler knows, but the answer may lie in the ridiculous 15-minute interview with Butler that concludes the disc. It could be forgiven if the interview had any substantive revelations, but what the listener gets is 15 minutes of Butler talking about subjects like Indian food and going to the movies. It's obvious filler -- and suggests that a large portion of the musical smorgasbord of The Game Has Just Begun was brought to the table for the same reason.

click to enlarge Henry Butler's The Game Has Just Begun plays by its own strange rules.
  • Henry Butler's The Game Has Just Begun plays by its own strange rules.
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