In the Tradition
Over two nights at the New Haven Lounge, the Todd Butler Group--Butler (trumpet, flugelhorn), J.C. Kuhl (tenor saxophone), Greg Hatza (piano), Jeff Reed (bass), and Tom Williams (drums)--settled into sets of midtempo grooves, picking up the pace when the moment called, and smoothly handling ballads with a tender touch. Butler is a player/composer who favors the confident elegance of the classic 1950s-'60s trumpeter-led hard-bop groups, knowing not only that you don't have to fix what isn't broke about this sound, but also that doesn't mean you paint it by numbers. That era jibes well with Butler's temperament; he favors buttery, elastic meters that can pick up steam or ease back depending on who's setting the pace, and open, expressive arrangements that frame the thought-out solo rather than a note cavalcade. And he leads his group by example, bringing out a lithe, brassy tone for Wayne Shorter's "Witch Hunt" or a nimble-fingered tap dance for Freddie Hubbard's "Up Jumped Spring," both accented by Reed and Williams' impeccable time-keeping. Neither soloed frequently, instead allowing their sharp ears and hands to display their skills, responding to the tempo shifts and moods of the trading soloists.
It's an even-keeled setting that brings out the tasteful and artful from players, and while Hatza's fiery organ work in his own group is its own kind of treat, he's hiding an expressive, witty piano palette. Whether tinkling over a easygoing rhythm, adding a peppery spice to Butler and Kuhl's dueling lines, or taking Reed and Williams on a lyrical, rollicking stroll, Hatza provided a thoughtful response to Butler's lead-off solos.
Of the group, Kuhl was the wild card these nights, though not in an uncontrolled or undisciplined manner. A soloist of muscular phrases and beefy low-register bottoms, Kuhl liked to speed things up a bit--particularly during his agile workout for "Witch Hunt"--though he could also handle the sweet and light, as a stylish simple turn on Lee Morgan's "Ceora" proved.
And Butler's song choices demonstrate where he's coming from the best. Lee Morgan isn't an unknown jazzman in anybody's history book, but his supple, soaring playing precedes his reputation as a composer, and he wrote some great tunes. Perhaps it takes another trumpeter to tip the hat in his, and other writers/horn players', direction: Butler didn't hide his Morgan appreciation, offering the stunning "Ceora" and the hoe-down title track from Morgan's 1965 Cornbread and "Mr. Kenyatta" from 1964's Search for the New Land, as well as tunes from other trumpet-playing composers, such as Woody Shaw's "Moontrane" and Benny Golson's "I Remember Clifford"--a poignant ode to a trumpeter taken from jazz too early, Clifford Brown. Over these two nights, Butler and company ably proved it was possible to esteem the classics from back in the day without sounding out of touch with the right now.
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