Butcher Brown’s Organic Big Band

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“We’re the hip-hop generation, so you’re going to hear those influences,” says Corey Fonville of Butcher Brown.

(Photo: Jacob Blickenstaff)

Horn player and rapper Marcus “Tennishu” Tenney is emphatic that the latest Butcher Brown album came up “from the mud.” His original version, recorded before their critically acclaimed 2020 album #KingButch, and before its relationship with Concord Music Group, was a stripped-down affair, independently released on Bandcamp.

In a conversation between the band and DownBeat, a few days before it took the stage at the Blue Note Jazz Festival in Napa Valley, Tennishu further clarified that “the original Triple Trey was written in a bedroom, and then it got transformed into this big band album, which is now coming out internationally. So that’s literally from A to Z. This started from nothing in Virginia and came all the way to L.A.” For a band so attuned to lineage (a lengthy list of inspirations is never far from their respective lips), it’s important to note from whence Butcher Brown Presents Triple Trey Featuring Tennishu And R4ND4ZZO BIGB4ND came. It’s a departure from the group’s previous jazz fusion-imbued work, more akin to a collage of influences and experiences than a complete stylistic diversion.

As a separate project, bassist/arranger Andrew Randazzo has been running a big band since 2017. “I feel like the big band art form has been around for so long. And so, there’s obviously something real and true just inside of that ensemble. And a lot of the big band music that’s being made today is really amazing. It’s really impressive, and some of it’s really hard and some of it’s really just really pushing the limits of harmony and tonal palettes. But what I wanted to do with this album is just make something to remind people that you can take those colors and that energy and just make it something that can fit inside of today’s rhythms, today’s genres. You can still nod your head and dance to some big band music. It doesn’t have to be this heady, ethereal statement.”

Triple Trey has solid string and horn sections, but don’t be fooled: This is no nostalgic attempt. According to Fonville, “We wanted everything to slap a little harder. We’re the hip-hop generation, so you’re going to hear those influences just from the stuff that we listened to in the car, that we’ve grown up checking out. It was intentional to put some [Roland TR-808 drum machine programming] on there, something that you typically would never hear in a big-band setting, but that’s who we are. We’re not going to change up us.”

Consequently, the album thumps. Fonville says a healthy low end is crucial. “We were sending mix notes to the engineer, just like, ‘Hey, we need more of this,’” he said. “We’re sound nerds so that’s just as important as the songs, in my mind.”

Guitarist Morgan Burrs concurred: “I definitely gravitated more toward fusion because I listen to old jazz stuff, and I wish the kick and the bass was a little bit louder. That was why we thought it would be dope to redo ‘Remind Me,’ because that old Patrice [Rushen] joint is crushing, it’s always the standard. But it’d be cool to make one that slaps a little bit, but still be really true to the old one, with these new capabilities we have. So, yeah, that mix is super-dope and that might be my favorite part about the whole record. Just hearing how the bass and the drums really translate with everything.”

On Triple Trey, the band’s appreciation for the low end, blended with the big band sound, come together to make magic.

Take the album’s version of “Unbelievable” by The Notorious B.I.G. It could have simply been a straightforward cover because the original is driven by a 1973 breakbeat sample of “Impeach The President” by The Honey Drippers, a Jamaica, Queens-based jazz/soul combo approximately the same size as Butcher Brown. In fact, the earlier Butcher Brown iteration of the track was posted to YouTube in 2018, racking up 37,000-plus views and counting. But the Triple Trey arrangement takes the conception of the sample to another level.

“I didn’t want to get too far away from the original [by The Notorious B.I.G],” Randazzo explains. “The timbre change going from that sample to having a whole horn section, I felt was enough to make it unique and fresh. And I wanted to keep it simple, I didn’t want to do anything too crazy with it. But if you listen to the arrangement, it’s just the same voicings and repetitive motifs over and over again, like what you hear in the original track.”

Another element that appears on this outing in full force is the influence of D’Angelo (at its root, a polyrhythmic mashup of gospel, Hendrix and Prince). The band, like D’Angelo, hails from the Richmond, Virginia, area. Fonville half-joking refers to the elusive soul genius as a “cousin that we haven’t met.”

Tennishu goes further. “D’Angelo’s music is tapped into where the first stolen Africans landed. So, you think about all of the artists that came from this area, they have that level of strength. Pharrell, D’Angelo, Al Foster (a drummer who played with Miles Davis from 1972 until 1985), all of these musicians, they have this extra, I don’t even know how to describe it. Even Sam Reed, her voice — extra. She’s a vocalist that we all grew up performing with from the same area. D’Angelo is the torch bearer in a sense. Voodoo [to] the greater Richmond area, is equivalent to what Thriller was to the world.”

Triple Trey may be a giant step in scale, but remains true to its consistently thought-provoking lyricism supplied by “Tennishu” Tenney. The message of “The Law,” for example, was crafted around Tennishu’s unanswered questions. He recalled, “It was just being broke as a musician, asking why this is going on. Why do people ignore you? Why do gatekeepers exist? Why do they want to take the assets that they loan me the money to make? Why do they want to do that? Why? No one has any answers.”

The arrangement follows suit, ending in a palpable burst of emotion, a breakdown reminiscent of the crescendo of “I Say A Little Prayer” by Roland Rashaan Kirk on his 1968 masterwork Volunteered Slavery.

“You just feel that struggle. That was always my favorite part in that song, because it does something emotionally to you, where you’re like, ‘Damn, I really feel the pain in this,’” Fonville says. “And that was obviously part of Andy paying attention to the lyrics and just, I don’t know, using his ears and just being like, ‘You know what? This should go here.’ Every time I listen to it, I get some chills.”

“The Law” speaks to the greater battle for intellectual property for creative people in a world where content is currency that seldom monetarily benefits the content creators,” Tenney says. “Instead, the spoils go to the people who write the contracts.” Tenney suggests that that imbalance is by design, “Just in the way that all the mechanisms are laid out.” Complicating matters, he says, is the prevailing notion that “musicians are expected to be musicians. Just like when LeBron [James] had those racial slurs spray painted on the side of his house and then the lady told him to ‘Shut up and dribble,’ that’s basically what we’re all supposed to do. And so, we’re not supposed to know that our lawyer and our producer, or whoever, are best friends behind the scenes. We’re not supposed to know that. We not supposed to know what the percentage is in the North American territory versus in Japan.

“If I wanted to get a house, and I go to the bank and borrow money from the bank, they don’t take the house after I paid the loan off. But the label is going to keep all these masters until we give them money for that, too. But we’re not supposed to know that. And that’s the whole thing with Black people. That’s why we weren’t allowed to read. It’s because we weren’t supposed to know that. And now it’s not a racial game anymore, I don’t feel like. I feel like it’s a power and money game because everybody got the internet, so you can’t hide it from people no more. And that’s what that song is about, to tie it all back. Why is this happening for hundreds or hundreds of years and it’s still going on?”

The band collectively hopes this record serves as a testament to its varied talents and how something can be made out of nothing by sheer talent and determination. Guitarist Morgan Burrs explained, “We spend a lot of time talking with each other about all that everybody in this band can do, whether it’s on a production tip or whether it’s arranging or whether it’s Marcus with the lyricism and all the different instruments that everybody plays. I think it really is just a showcase of everything that we can do and it’s all in-house. We’re not hiring the arrangers. We’re not hiring writers.”

A Butcher Brown big band album wasn’t the idea of an A&R person or label-based brain trust. “I was just doing these shows in Richmond featuring my friends, and it seemed a nice concept for a night at The Broadberry to get the Butcher guys in there — just take this material that already exists, do every single tune on the album, in the order of the album, [plus] we added the Biggie cover,” Randazzo said. But like Marcus was saying, it just happened from nothing. It wasn’t some plan. It was really organic.

“[It was] just this domino effect of Marcus starting in the bedroom, I got to write this music, I got to put it out. And then I said, we got to do this show, and we got to record it. And that was, what, 2019? That was before our relationship with Concord.

“I’m super thankful for Concord for giving us the outlet. But I think what Marcus said is really important, that it came about organically from nothing. It just started because it was what we felt in our hearts that we had to do.”

DJ Harrison concluded, “Every facet of the process between Marcus writing in his bedroom to Andy writing the arrangements to getting it out to the world reminds me of why we all still do this. And it’s because we love it, we actually care about the music itself. Like everybody’s saying, it’s not some marketing thing. Music brought us all together, and we love doing it, and we truly love and care about the art form itself.” DB



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