In a city known for its incredible piano players, New Orleans native Henry Butler sits a master of this unique stylistic craft. Currently residing in Brooklyn when not on tour, I was quite thrilled to see that Henry was playing a gig at the 55 Bar, a great little spot in a West Village basement that’s been hosting blues and jazz in NYC for many years, claiming to date back to the Prohibition era. Though quite packed, it was a great setting for a smokin’ gig.
Henry was joined by the Millennial Territory Orchestra, led by trumpet/slide trumpet master and arranger, Steven Bernstein. Bernstein is a downtown New York musician with quite a resume as both a bandleader and sideman. Along with MTO he also has led the group Sex Mob for over a decade and was in the Levon Helm Band horn section. Quite an accomplished player, to say the least, and he obviously took the chance to play with a legend like Henry Butler quite seriously, for he did a fabulous job.
MTO consists of drums, upright bass, violin, guitar and a slew of brass and woodwinds. Bernstein conducts the ensemble as well as playing both slide and normal trumpet. The group has a very worldly vibe to them and their sound reminds me of gypsy jazz meets Dixieland, similar to what a lot of players on Frenchmen street are doing. They blended splendidly with Henry’s syncopated skills.
They kicked things off with a classic rendition of “I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say.” Henry hammered out the jazz chords, singing with that great deep voice of his, while the band fell right in behind him. The violin accentuated the melody quite well while the horns blew out some lovely Dixieland style counterpoint. Made me feel like I was home in New Orleans! Next they did Fats Waller’s “Viper Drag”, the violin played the lead riff then the baritone saxophone stepped up for a great solo, Henry chimed in on keys and the whole band perfectly captured the song’s vintage sound. While blending together well on the classic covers, the MTO sounded just as comfortable and happy playing some of Henry’s originals, like “Dixie Walker.” Bernstein conducted the group quite well on this one chiming in on trumpet for the chorus and leading the group to showcase some great communal horn solos with a trad-jazz meets klezmer kind of feel. They closed the show with the great old R & B classic “Baby Let Me Hold Your Hand” with Henry giving a big shoutout to the late great Snooks Eaglin. Henry sang it and the MTO backed him up beautifully on this boogie-woogie classic.
The 55 Bar was packed to capacity for this show, to the point where people were even standing outside in the rain just to listen. This evening was a wonderful blending of styles and a great example of the high regard that the fine musicians of NYC have for the incredibly gifted and uniquely talented artists of New Orleans. I have much respect and gratitude for Steven Bernstein and the MTO for their masterful display of musicianship and to Henry Butler, for being the amazing player that he is and proving that New Orleans isn’t just a City, it’s a state of mind and a way of life, no matter where you are.