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Oberlin Review, March 2006

New Sublime Stylings of Johnny Butler Surprise

Senior Saxophonist Tackles New Musical Frontiers

By Sarah Politz

If his senior recital is any indication, senior Johnny Butler is mellowing out. If anyone came to the Cat in the Cream last Thursday night anticipating an evening filled with the atonal free jazz that Oberlin has come to expect from Butler, they were probably a little surprised, but by the end of the night, they could not possibly have been disappointed.

Over the course of his four years at Oberlin, Butler has developed a reputation in the jazz department for challenging conventional standards of performance. He admitted, “I usually wind up taking this rebel pose. For a while, I kind of positioned myself with a kind of a postmodern [out]look. I wanted to change things, and not do things that had already been done.

“But I kind of had a change of heart over the last couple of months,” Butler continued. “There’s no need for me to rebel against things I like. You know, in Indian music there’s no concept of music progressing from generation to generation; it’s more like people just... playing. And [my recital] is kind of a reflection of that.”

Butler has always enjoyed the power of making a musical statement but, at his recital, it was evident that he has come to some kind of new peace. Its effects on his playing were unmistakable. Thursday night was an amazing demonstration of the possibilities that can result from creativity and imagination in the context of a vibrant tradition.

The concert opened with “I’ve Known Rivers,” a tune by Butler’s saxophone teacher, Gary Bartz. Bassist Chris Mees started the song with a simple, relaxed bass line, then Butler entered with the melody – expressive, thoughtful and freshly beautiful. The word soulful came to mind in a brand new way. In improvising, Butler carefully danced in and out of tonality, playfully introducing chromaticism, then sliding back into the simple beauty that characterized the main melody. Senior drummer Kassa Overall played with a great, tasty, delicate aesthetic, holding back and holding down the sweet groove.

Next, Butler played his arrangement of the Frank Loesser standard “I’ve Never Been in Love Before.” It began with a moody bass pedal under a slick groove; then his saxophone appeared, sparse and airy, with a tender treatment of the well-known melody. Overall played with the tempo, slowing all the way down and then speeding up for the return of the melody; he had the audience transfixed and giggling.

After a restatement of the head, Butler launched into an improvisation that was full of forward motion, while Overall responded with encouraging kicks and interjections in the background. Drums and saxophone stretched rhythms over the bar lines, exploring the rhythmic possibilities. Butler took some imaginative risks in his solo, moving up and down through sequences, perhaps to such an extent that the band arrived at a slightly confused ending.

Then, Butler performed John Coltrane’s notorious “Giant Steps,” a benchmark tune for jazz players because of its unusual root motion, which moves in major thirds. Butler changed the harmonic rhythm of the piece to replace two measures of eight beats with a bar of seven and a bar of nine. This gave an angular, jagged effect to a tune that already jumped around quite a lot, but Overall tapped into the innate funk of the rhythmic arrangement and used this to give the tune a real groove.

Butler’s solo actually seemed strangely formulaic; “Giant Steps” has a way of compelling the improviser to play certain prescribed patterns. After finishing this number, Butler said, “I’m glad that’s over. Now we can go on and play some real music.” The audience laughed, unsure how to respond to his half-serious sarcasm.

On Butler’s composition, “Katrina,” Mees played an extended, unaccompanied solo that explored syncopated rhythms and interesting intervallic jumps. When Butler came back in for his solo, he proved how true his spirit is to this music. He played melodies that were “out” in the sense that they seemed to have not been played on normal notes, but they were so immediately present that they washed over the heart in a flood of emotion. Butler compared “Katrina” to a tune on John Coltrane’s album Crescent. Coltrane’s spirit was definitely in the room.

If the music had a top that was keeping everything inside, Butler took it off and released whatever was contained therein. Freedom is the word for such a sensation — the understanding of possibility, the sweet universal union of the out and the in, the exterior and the interior, the avant-garde and tradition. The sense of such possibility fortifies fellow musicians with the courage to create small, beautiful things, and to perform strange, sincere and wonderful music.

The last tune of the evening was another of Butler’s compositions, called “On the John,” which proved to be a wacky little blues piece. Mees began walking a playful, lopsided bass line, often displacing the meter and interpolating half-steps.

Butler’s solo was outlandish; it was hyperbolic speech translated through the saxophone. He developed a narrative, thinking out loud and responding to his own quirky comments. Everything was related and jumbled up in a big conversational pot: soul spoke to blues which responded to honk which spoke to squeal which screamed at swing.

Asked if his recital was a reflection on his time at Oberlin, Butler replied, “It’s more like looking ahead, looking at the future for me, personally.” After graduating, he plans to move to New York City to teach and play music – with integrity and style, one can no doubt anticipate.

Oberlin Review October 2004

Quintet Hypnotizes Cat Audience

Lillian Copeland

Picture a smoke-filled bar with men and women exchanging seductive glances across the small room, loners swirling their almost-empty glasses and gazing into the haze while taking a final drag on their cigarette... To me, this is jazz. The seductive, crooning sounds that come from tenor saxes and the undeniably lulling swish of wire brushes on a cymbal; these sounds make you sink into the world that is created when jazz musicians begin to rock their souls.

I got sucked into said mesmerizing world on Tuesday night while listening to Johnny Butler's Quintet at the Cat. "This guy's the greatest. It's a real pleasure to play with Johnny Butler. He's a great guy and it really comes out in the music," said Ryan Snow, trombone. His original compositions were indeed the stars of the show. The quintet, consisting of Johnny Butler on tenor sax, Ryan Snow on trombone, Benn Purcell on bass, Eben Lichtman on piano and Patrick Barter on drums, was created specifically to reveal Johnny's compositions. Though each musician had his own style, it still sounded as though the group had been together for years.

When listening to Johnny's pieces, I noticed that all of them start off with the rhythm section (piano, bass, drum kit) and then bring in the solo lines. Johnny commented on his use of the rhythm section as "a little intro, a little hors d'oeuvre," before bringing in the solo instruments. Often begun quietly, these sax and trombone unisons would delicately worm their way through the lines of the walking bass, drums and piano accompaniment. Three of the seven pieces performed were upbeat, and the trombone and sax would swell into the main tune and would take turns soloing. The remaining four each had its own distinct mood, though all could have fit into the scene described above.

The first piece, Untitled No. 1, began with a count-off by Johnny. Untitled No. 1 was especially interesting because it was a palindrome -- 24 measures into the piece, it started going backwards. The drummer, Patrick is one of the most fluid drummers I've seen. He was not just banging away on some drums, but instead playing them as though they were an extension of himself. It was clear that he let every beat and melody penetrate his body. The majority of the time, his head was angled off to the side, and his eyes were closed, yet he didn't have to look to know where his hands were going. They naturally spilled over the different instruments, creating an easy sound that could be either soothing or purposeful. For example, in Untitled No. 1, he changed between a moving rhythm and one that was relaxed. Benn Purcell (bass) and he would sometimes double time the rhythm and other times ease back into the slower tempo.

Entr'act was played over a a rhythmic drone. The trombone and sax moved up and down the first four notes of different scales and modes, creating a slow build to which the instruments began to solo. In the trombone solo, Ryan played in and around the key with a very clear, clean mellow sound, while Benn, Patrick and Eben held their own with a steady lilting line.

Stockholm Syndrome was my personal favorite. The title is actually the name of a psychological condition wherein people who are taken hostage and are under pressure from their captors don't fear them, but instead fall in love and sympathize with them. (I believe this was what happened to me over the course of the evening.) Introduced by gentle snare and cymbal playing and accompanied by simple chords on the piano, the tune was very sparse and soft, epitomizing my romantic, idealist idea of jazz. Johnny's solo on this piece was beautiful. It was sweet, mellow and almost transparent. Eben's piano solo was also in the same mood and was delicate, easy-sounding and simple, almost like an afterthought. The entire package was a gently rolling scene that played out in my head as the music entered my ears.

Untitled No. 3 was composed from the Charlie Parker tune "Confirmation." Johnny likens the piece to the film Memento, as he begins at the end of Parker's composition and goes backward. Each individual measure is played forward, but their order is reversed. The result was a fun, agile piece. Benn Purcell's bass solo this tune was fantastic. He played a lot with tempo and managed to work his way out of the piece and then back around and in again with class. A smile of satisfaction came to my face when he came back around and the rest of the band joined him for the refrain.

Annabel Lee comes from Edgar Allen Poe's poem of that same title. The slow pace of this piece allowed Eben to really sing through his piano solo. His ideas sounded fully developed and had a singing quality to them that I hadn't yet heard from him. The melody itself had the rhythm of the words, "It was many and many a year ago,/ In a kingdom by the sea,/ That a maiden there lived whom you may know/ By the name of Annabel Lee," making it seem as though the music was singing the poem itself.

"Eulogy for 2nd Lt. Brian D. Smith of the First Infantry Division" is Johnny's "political piece." This piece came about on July 6, 2004, when he ran across this man's name in the newspaper. Listed under the casualties from the Iraqi War, Johnny decided to write a piece for him. "I was like, fuck, and I wrote the tune... It's supposed to be a eulogy while at the same time show our outrage." This was certainly clear. Ryan's trombone wailed for the outrage of this man's death, and in Johnny's sax solo, I could hear traces of "Amazing Grace" and the traditional taps. Patrick created the feeling of a military march with snare drum rolls and cymbals, resulting in an almost dirge-like effect. The tune itself begins with an open fifth, sliding to a flat 6 and then back down. This happens several times, and the pattern works its way around different keys, finally chromatically lowering itself into the sound of the piano, bass and drums, and disappearing all together. Its ambiguous ending well represented Johnny's purpose in writing this work.

To end on a less somber note, the Quintet played Johnny's Untitled No. 2 as their last tune. Beginning with the rhythm section again, Ryan and Johnny came in like a taxi driver laying on his horn. This happened eight times. The fourth time, Ryan slid his trombone, creating swells that resembled that of a foghorn. For me, this entire piece was, "New York City on fast-forward, between 10-11 p.m. on a Friday night." You've got the horns, the quick percussion, and the nimble piano jumping all around. They all seemed to solo at the same time, and yet, like the crazy city, it seemed to be organized chaos. Everything sounded very close together, and when they finally paused, I needed a breath just as much as they. The piano had little solos and would put rests in them, making it sound like a taxi turned off of Broadway and onto a quiet side-street; once you hit the next avenue, it was back in motion.

Ensemble 46 Expands Artistic Limits, Innovative Music/Dance Group Transcens Genres

by Robyn Weiss

(photo caption: "Dances and Musicians Unite: Johnny Butler meeting for practice with fellow members of Ensemble 46, an improv group that seeks to fuse dance and music.")

Every week, five dancers and five musicians come together to engage in extended improvisation. The only continuing improv group of its kind on campus, Ensemble 46 serves to explore the medium and create a bridge between dance and music improvisation.

Composed of dancers senior Tatyana Tenenbaum, sophomores Lucy Segar and Sarah Hymanson, and first-years Hannah Verrill and Alesandra Zsiba, along with musicians first-year Andrei Pohorelsky on piano, seniors Matt Nelson and Johnny Butler on saxophone, junior Josh Morris on bass and senior Jake Wise on clarinet, the group formed at the beginning of this semester and hopes to continue into the next.

“The group is the continuing exploration of the relationship between music and dance,” said Tenenbaum, the initial organizer. “I wanted to establish a group that improvises more than once, that could come to know each other...to [serve as a] change from the one-on-one relationship that usually happens with improv.”

The improvisation sessions usually begin with setting a score, or structure to follow. The guidelines that the score sets help the dancers and musicians have direction for their improv and ideally challenge them to experiment. An audience is not necessarily supposed to pick up on the score — rather, it is intended to direct the improvisers.

“The score gives [the improv] a purpose,” said Zsiba. “It makes [improvising] more satisfying to do...[and gives us the chance] to break our habits.”

In many settings, improvisation like this occurs on a smaller scale without participant regularity. Ensemble 46 hoped to break from this standard. The nature of the group helps its members develop relationships and establish comfort among them.

“The consistency of people working together establishes a real sense of each other’s identities,” said Pohorelsky.

The connection among improvisers serves the group’s creative purposes as well. The consistent group setting enables the dancers and musicians to explore their arts in ways ordinarily unavailable to them.

“Improvisation is personally so necessary for me,” said Verrill. “It gets your mind to work in a way that it wouldn’t otherwise. Improvisation exercises the muscles you need for composition or choreography, only [in improv] you don’t have to commit to anything, to an idea; it’s impulsive, transitive.”

The improvisers appreciate the medium that they have created for the opportunity it gives to expand their practices and explore new connections.

“Usually music and dance and other mediums exist in their own worlds,” said Morris. “When the different spheres collide, you generate something that you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

The group hopes to further this collision into other areas as well, such as visual art and theater, making it more established and cross-disciplinary in the future. Because of the positive feedback that the group is already enjoying, this seems to be a realizable goal.

“People here have been really receptive and excited about it,” said Segar.

The Oberlin community is not the sole source of excitement; the dancers and musicians share in it. The experience has been an opportunity for them to learn as well.

“It made me aware suddenly that everything I do is part of the piece,” said Wise. “I’m not used to thinking like that, but once you realize it, it changes everything and you can’t go back. Usually when you play, you’re just playing, and movement doesn’t matter.”

Saxophonists Butler and Nelson experienced similar changes.

“I dance more at my gigs now,” said Butler.

“The group affected me as a dancer,” said Nelson. “I had never thought of how music related to movement.”

The dancers, too, have undergone changes as a result of the group.

“I had the least experience dancing, of the dancers, and they’ve been really supportive,” said Hymanson. “But I’ve been able to take this with me into my acrobatics.”

Improvisation of this sort in a performance setting was something new for some of the group. Public performances were not within the original intentions.

“Dance improvisation as performance is unique,” said Segar. “But we evolved into a performance group... It makes you think differently about what a dance performance is and what music performance is.”

The performances have been both an evolutionary and cyclical process, changing as the members grow to understand each other, yet existing under the notion of improvisation’s inconstant nature.

When the group first started improvising together, for example, the musicians did not move or interact with the dancers to a great extent. However, as time progressed, both the dancers and musicians began to feel more comfortable interacting with each other.

“Our [initial] hesitancy turned into confidence,” said Segar.

Ensemble 46’s presence at Oberlin serves to connect various creative expressions. Continuing along its current path, it could set the score for future artistic risks. Ensemble 46 will perform on Wednesday, May 3 in Warner Concert Hall for the TIMARA concert at 8 p.m. and on Thursday, May 4 at the Cleveland Spaces Gallery from 5-10 p.m.

The Oberlin Review

Septet Wows the Crowd

By Sarah Politz

Last Saturday night, the Oberlin Jazz Septet performed a Parents’ Weekend concert before a large, diverse and exuberant crowd at Finney Chapel.

Concertgoers who enjoyed the performance may not, however, have known the story behind the Septet. Every year, each faculty member of the Conservatory jazz department recommends a student from his studio to join the Septet, a top-level performance ensemble that represents the best of the department. Thus the instrumentation of the ensemble is the same every year, for better or for worse, regardless of group dynamics or stylistic inclinations.

Because of its high-profile position, the group also sometimes finds itself performing in situations that are politically charged, but, as junior trumpeter Theo Croker said, “As musicians, it’s important for us to learn to operate politically — and within the structure of politics. You can’t just stand on top of the building and yell the truth; you’ve got to get inside the politics and work from inside. It’s like a virus. You’ve got to get inside the body and then spread.”

Despite particular differences in style, this year’s Oberlin Jazz Septet has come together remarkably. Its members form a collective of individuals — cohesion without the erasure of identities. The ensemble consists of senior Curtis Ostle on bass, junior Charles Foldesh on drums, sophomore Sullivan Fortner on piano, senior Johnny Butler on tenor saxophone, junior Theo Croker on trumpet and senior Allie Bosso on trombone. The group has already been on tour this year in late August and plans to take another tour during Winter Term.

“It’s one of the most professional, cohesive bands I’ve been in. I think the faculty enjoys selecting the group and it’s always an interesting combination,” Croker said.

The concert on Saturday night started 15 minutes late, but what followed was well worth the wait. Opening with “Señor Blues,” Horace Silver’s funky, triplet-based composition, the ensemble played with a hip blues sensibility, steeped in hard bop.

Foldesh’s slick drumming brought a distinctly rhythm and blues flavor to the piece, giving and taking, egging on the soloists, and each time building up to a climax and release just as the level of invention had become intolerable. His infinite repertoire of sleazy facial expressions and periodic verbal outcries also gave the piece much of its character.

Fortner took a particularly compelling solo in which he began with call and response between two voices in different registers of the piano, and then developed into an almost fugue-like proliferation of imitation.

The band continued with Johnny Butler’s unconventional composition “Wayne Dance,” followed by “Twelve’s It,” an Ellis Marsalis tune that seemed to lose direction at the beginning of the solos.

The form of the song was often unclear, and Bosso’s solo seemed unaware of it, resorting to long, arhythmic tones. Fortner, however, began his solo by picking up the pieces and reuniting them. He simmered enigmatically while Foldesh baited him with call after call, until Fortner finally gave the response, arriving at a stunning culmination.

Croker then announced that the next song would “feature [their] pianist. [Their] solo pianist.” Fortner had evidently only been notified of this decision to feature him on “Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?” at that moment.

“It was a complete surprise. [Theo] had told me like a few seconds ago,” Fortner said. “Theo’s going to get it. Me and Andrew have really got it in for him. Tell Theo to get ready.”

Croker was proud of his decision for the piano solo.

“Those dynamics in the band — that’s what makes it more fun, that’s what makes it worth getting up for. It’s about challenging each other, and I know Sullivan is going to hit me back for that,” he said.

Alone on stage, Fortner took a moment to compose himself. He then began with a moody introduction, filled with murky dissonance and turmoil. Out of this brooding introduction appeared the melody, in classic stride style, simple and nostalgic, like a break in the clouds. In that moment, Fortner transported the audience to New Orleans’s heyday, a time when you could hear that kind of music floating out of a window, played on an old upright piano.

“It was kind of like, ‘here we are now, New Orleans is flooded.’ But it wasn’t until afterward that I realized maybe I was trying to get some water imagery and then it cleared up and then there was the melody. That song has a little sad kind of vibe to it, but it still makes me happy to remember the way the city was. And that’s how the city was, you know — a little sad, but always like, ‘We’re gonna make it,’” he said.

There was more than nostalgia in Sullivan’s interpretation, however. He upped the ante by occasionally launching into an Art Tatum-style run from the top to the bottom of the piano, frequently adding gospel and spiritual touches to his stride voicings, and actually going into double time at one point. The reintroduction of the melody alternated between sweet nostalgic statements and more forceful, jarring and angular responses in the bass notes.

Fortner’s performance of this tune, whose title has acquired a sad irony in light of recent events, spoke deeply to the physical and emotional chaos that New Orleans is experiencing, to the spiritual power of its people and, perhaps most vividly, to the strong, conflicted emotions that stir deep both beneath and beyond the floodwaters.

“I just feel honored to be selected, really humbled, that people thought about me to play in this group with these people,” he said.

The Septet returned to the stage to close its set with its funky, collective arrangement of another song that has come to evoke images of New Orleans — Thelonious Monk’s “Green Chimneys.” This tune, a simple 32-bar form that has only two tonal centers, put the individual style of each player into stark relief. Butler’s solo, for example, frequently stepped outside of the chords, interpolating Coltrane-esque habits and other harmonic inventions, resulting in some positively whacked-out swing. Butler has a practice of leering into the microphone with his saxophone.

“I always hear that stuff with this band; I want to take it way out,” he said.

Bosso also played a strong, albeit entirely different, solo on this tune, repeating funky blues fragments again and again in different rhythmic and harmonic contexts.

Croker began his solo with a chorus played in quasi-muted half-tone. He then blew the lid off several choruses, conversing at a high level with Foldesh’s drumming.

Conklin’s solo stood out from everything else played that night. He began with playing the area of strings past the nut and bridge of his guitar, where they sound in high-pitched harmonics. He then proceeded to attack his guitar, wailing on aggressive, chunky chords up and down the fretboard.

“‘Green Chimneys,’” Conklin said, “is [a tune] that we’ve played more than any other, and it brings out differences in approach and style more than any other song. It’s malleable, it’s easy to interpret. People tend to take it in their own direction. In a way, it’s a testament to the song.”

The crowd was standing at the end of the set, pounding their feet and demanding an encore, which the Septet provided with a quick and concise rendition of Croker’s arrangement of “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.”