Johnny Butler is playing his saxophone under a bridge, into a little box, filling the room with sound like a mossy creek, a red mountain plateau in the sun, an icy tundra at dusk. The sounds remind you of traveling, moving to a new city, a new job, a new apartment. They remind you of an orchestra tuning before a concert. They remind you of a renaissance court jester, groveling before the queen. You imagine fluorescent watercolors spilling off the page, pooling on the floor. You find yourself looking inward, thinking about when you were young. You think about your secrets, the ones you don’t want anyone to know.
Johnny Butler is a Grammy-award winning musician and arranger for his work on Byoncé's "Love on Top" and a Lucille Lortell Award winning performer and orchestrator on Heather Christian's Oratorio for Living Things. Butler plays the saxophone (soprano, alto, tenor, and bari), flute, clarinet, composes, does audio engineering, dances, and makes films. Over the years, he has worked with Beyoncé, Stevie Wonder, Donald Fagen (Steely Dan), Warren Haynes (Allman Brothers, Gov’t Mule), Wynton Marsalis, The Levon Helm Band, Tune-Yards, Theo Croker, Kassa Overall, Joe Lally (Fugazi), Escaper, and Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds.
Like its predecessor, Thirteen Dances, all of the songs on Butler's 2022 album The Sunbather were performed by Butler in single takes using just a tenor saxophone, a handful of electronic devices, breathing techniques, and body movement (with the exception of “It’s Fine” - which was performed on a Korg Prologue). All of the music was also performed live with no edits, no overdubs, no samples, no loops, and no pre-recorded materials.
Alive with a palpable sense of drama and movement, nine of the eleven songs on The Sunbather were initially written for a number of dance productions staged throughout 2021. “Spinning Wheel” was written for Sleepwalkers, a dance-theatre work presented at The Visionary in Mount Vision, New York with dancer-choreographers Michelle Thompson Ulerich and Caleb Patterson. “The Necklace” was composed for Warriors, which premiered at The Visionary with dancer-choreographers Gwendolyn Gussman and Xenia Mansour and lighting designer Alex Taylor. “Unatamam Seni”, “It’s Fine”, “Lost,” and “The Birdcage” were all written for HOLDTIGHT’s immersive production What Keeps You Going, which took place at The Cell Theatre in Manhattan. “The Alex Detector”, “Slow Motion”, and “Joker Family Reunion” were composed for performances in Brooklyn and Manhattan with Alex Oliva.
Using only a saxophone and a handful of electronic devices, Butler recorded all of the Thirteen Dances in real-time without the aid of samples, loopers, overdubs, or prerecorded materials. Unlike most musicians who work with dance, Butler uses a wireless microphone to move with the dancers onstage, blending the music, the dancer, and the daydream.
Johnny’s 2017 album HyperViolet is a sublime, expansive spiritual jazz-fusion masterpiece. Celestial, fiery, and trance inducing in nature, HyperViolet delivers a supremely transcendental musical message. Since it's release by London-based Hi4Head Records, the album has garnered as much praise overseas as in the US. The Wire says, “Johnny Butler is the real deal - he arranged for Beyoncé, for God's sake – and HyperViolet is just about the freshest thing you'll hear all year.” Likewise, Jazzwise Magazine UK says “Brimming with brass-swinging, rhyme-slinging cuts…acolytes of Glasper, Spaulding, and Steve Lehman’s Sélébéyone project would be well advised to seek it out.”
Originally born in Seattle, WA to a musical family, Johnny Butler began his explorations into music at a very young age, spending countless hours playing the saxophone and composing on the piano. He started working as a professional musician at 12 years old, playing around the Seattle scene, sneaking into bars and venues across the city, playing with rock bands, jazz groups, and hip-hop projects. During his time in high school, Johnny played with Michael Shrieve (Santana), Reggie Watts, Roy Hargrove, Wynton Marsalis, Skerik, and Cedar Walton, won numerous awards and praise, and toured America, China, and Europe. After high school, Johnny went to the Oberlin Conservatory of Music where he met his mentor Gary Bartz and studied jazz and classical composition and was selected to play in the nationally-touring Oberlin Jazz Septet.
When Butler first arrived in Brooklyn, he helped found the group Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds. Sister Sparrow & The Dirty Birds provided Johnny with a rare opportunity to develop his own concepts while touring for four years and releasing two albums on Modern Vintage Recordings.
Johnny is extremely self-challenging and exploratory; he is uninhibited by conventional attitudes. In his evolution as a notable composer and improviser, he founded the avant-garde jazz metal outfit Scurvy to push the boundaries of traditional sonic territories. Scurvy signed to London’s Hi4Head Records and gave Johnny a fiery atmosphere to explore new musical constructions. All About Jazz writes: “Saxophonist Johnny Butler’s band Scurvy underscores close relationship between punk rock abandon and the freedom of improvised music while also incorporating ambitious compositional ideals found in both progressive rock and modern jazz.”
While on tour with Scurvy, Johnny was granted a chance to deeply explore technology as a tool to expand the sonic possibilities of his compositions and performance practice. He beagn working with Todd Reynolds, violinist and Ableton-sponsored Artist, and released his first completely solo saxophone and electronics EP, called SOLO, in 2008: an innovative solo saxophone album recorded in real-time with no overdubs or pre-recorded material. Entrancingly ethereal, SOLO received critical acclaim despite clocking in at a mere 24 minutes. Downbeat wrote: “After dabbling with resonances from John Coltrane and Miles Davis and enveloping his processed saxophone sound in cavernous reverb, Brooklyn-based Johnny Butler turns a polyphony of overdubbed horns (triggered by laptop) into Fritz Lang’s Metropolis machine on SOLO.”
Butler’s second solo saxophone loop-based album Carousel continued to reflect his passion for technology and performance, and was voted “Best of 2013” by Jazz Journalists Association. Continually innovative, creating an introspective moody travelogue through the Brooklyn cityscape. Carousel clearly demonstrated Johnny Butler’s inclination to expand beyond terrestrial means.
Butler’s 2014 EP Raise It Up took the saxophone into another dimension with a provocative style that is as thoughtful as it is danceable. Step Tempest wrote that “Raise It Up is a glorious mash of styles, sounds and soul music, not so much a display of technical prowess as it shows what a strong producer/arranger Johnny Butler is becoming.” Similarly, Nextbop wrote that “Raise It Up is a more dance/hip hop-focused album that includes more involved production, various samples, and a more hodgepodge sensibility that adds even more lushness to Butler's repertoire.” With a formidable 7-track lineup of original songs, Raise it Up includes a smorgasbord of free/uncleared samples and instrumental contributions by Kassa Overall and many others.
Johnny collaborated with Dani Mari to create a trio of short horror films inspired by Dario Argento’s trilogy about witches The Three Mothers (Le Tre Madri), (Suspiria, Inferno, Mother of Tears). The three videos were premiered with a live musical performance at the opening night of the Brooklyn Horror Film Festival for a sold out audience. The first film of the trilogy “Sighs” was premiered on WXPN on Halloween 2015, the second film "Darkness" was premiered on Friday the 13th by Brooklyn Vegan, and the third film "Tears" was premiered on Screamfix on Halloween 2016 at midnight.
Over the years, Johnny Butler has performed, written, and recorded with many of his musical heroes, notably becoming a Grammy-award winning recording artist and arranger for his work with Beyoncé on her album 4, and has played with Donald Fagen, tUnE-yArdS, Warren Haynes, the Levon Helm Band, Govt Mule, Rubblebucket, Joe Lally (Fugazi), Strangefolk at StrangeCreek, La La Brooks of Phil Spector’s Crystals, The Skeletons Big Band, recorded with Grammy-award winner and former American Idol Judge Randy Jackson at Jim Henson Studios in Los Angeles, and has opened up for Stevie Wonder, Lettuce, Common, Medeski Martin and Wood, Rebirth Brass Band, The Avett Brothers, Dr. John, Fitz and the Tantrums, Counting Crows, moe., Soulive, Sharon Jones and Dap Kings, Trombone Shorty, Grand Funk Railroad, Galatic, Allen Stone, Turkauz, and the Funky Meters at venues such as Mountain Jam, Montreux Jazz Festival, San Sabastian Jazz Festival, Bear Creek, Gathering of the Vibes, Telluride Jazz Festival, Voodoo Fest in New Orleans, North Sea Jazz Festival, and Bonnaroo.