Butler, Bernstein Complement ‘Jazz Age’ Exhibition


Steven Bernstein’s Hot 9 with Henry Butler

(Photo: Stephanie Berger)

Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein and the Hot 9 steamed up the Cleveland Museum of Art’s Gartner Auditorium on Oct. 11.

Largely based on Viper’s Drag, the captivating Impulse! album the group released in 2014, the site-specific performance started slowly and a bit ragged with Joe “King” Oliver’s “Sugar Foot Stomp.” But it secured its grip the third song in with “Dixie Walker,” a wild tune by piano savant Butler featuring band co-leader Bernstein on slide trumpet, a puckish clarinet solo by Doug Wieselman and supple, shifting rhythms encompassing New Orleans second line and the Bo Diddley beat.

The Butler-Bernstein performance was a perfect complement to “The Jazz Age: American Style in the 1920s,” a dazzling exhibition organized by the Cleveland Museum of Art and Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, New York, that runs through Jan. 14. “The Jazz Age” focuses on the 1920s but bleeds well into the 1930s, celebrating names that continue to define elite, edgy style: Cartier, architects Ludwig Mies van der Rohe and Frank Lloyd Wright, and Cleveland designer Viktor Schreckengost, whose cobalt blue punch bowl imbues ceramics with the very spirit of jazz.

The dynamism and expressiveness of the Butler-Bernstein-Hot 9 date (actually, the band was a Hot 10) fit hand in glove with that of “The Jazz Age” for good reason. Among the vintage tunes this sprawling aggregation transmogrified were Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues,” Fats Waller’s “Viper’s Drag” and that loose opener, “Sugar Foot Stomp.” And while the band shone on these chestnuts, it was more modern material like Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round in Circles” and the encore, Professor Longhair’s “Big Chief,” that turned it into a mighty engine.

The energy began to build on a smoky “Viper’s Drag” when Bernstein got the crowd to clap along, and during Butler’s sharp song, which featured the penetrating trombone of Curtis Fowlkes and the rolling drums of Donald Edwards. There were other notable solos along the way, including Matt Munisteri’s stinging guitar turn on “Wolverine Blues” and Peter Apfelbaum’s tenor saxophone on the encore. But the spotlight largely stayed on Butler; even though his back was to the crowd, his presence was magnetic, his pianism elemental.

Bernstein, a natty New York trumpet wizard known for his work in bands such as Sexmob and the Lounge Lizards, contemporized the vintage tunes, and not only via arrangements. The man is a born entertainer. He joked about a time when “real kings” like King Oliver ruled—and made such worthy loyalists as Louis Armstrong part of their administration. More moderator than conductor, Bernstein led the band through its increasingly catchy paces.

The witty Bernstein, a genial conductor and biting trumpet player, largely deferred to Butler, a blind New Orleans pianist perpetuating that city’s tradition. Butler was outrageous, spinning out impossibly rococo boogie lines and in the same tune going limpid. An impassioned baritone, he also sang beautifully, evoking the sorrow of Morton’s “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” building the Preston tune into a majestic statement of faith (much thanks to Apfelbaum’s soulful tenor saxophone) and powering “Big Chief” to its joyful conclusion.

Not only did Butler’s robust take on “Big Chief” effectively channel the spirit of the original, it united the group with the audience as the band wound through the auditorium, a multi-headed Pied Piper with a largely southern accent. DB

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