There was a moment in Butler, Bernstein & the Hot 9’s show when bandleader and trumpeter Steven Bernstein summed up everything great about jazz performances. Pianist Henry Butler had just finished a solo that may have hit all 88 piano keys, the band paused for a quick second and crashed the song out. Bernstein turned to the audience and said “It’ll never be heard like that again.” In that statement, it was apparent that everyone on stage had that one elusive bit of mojo that not every world-class musician has. It hurts to describe it in such a vague way, but these guys simply “get it.” They understand that the most interesting part of improvisation is the inability to repeat yourself exactly. They played with enough grit to show that they embraced the soul and intensity of jazz. They understand this genre in every way that the Starbucks crowd doesn’t. It’s not background music to relax to, it’s not scenester coffee shop speaker static. Jazz is music that demands activity, involvement, and should never be complacent. And, damn, do they check all of those boxes.
From the get go, the band had an energy that’s hard to find outside of punk venues. They hit the ground running with a hard bop improvisation festival. Butler’s style blends jazz, blues, and even a bit of classical, like a thrashing Thelonious Monk. Bassist Brad Jones and guitarist Matt Munisteri brought in a sharp funk flavor to the mix, while Bernstein played trumpet and conducted at the same time, like it was just another day at the office. Describing every individual musician’s strengths would break word limits, so let’s just put it bluntly: everyone kicked ass.
By the time the band got to their third song “Viper’s Drag,” they had melodiously listed a series of historical influences and offshoots of jazz. They dabbled in and mixed together third-stream, soul, blues, Dixieland, bebop, boogie-woogie … the list goes on. Even the setup for the stage had musicians Curtis Fowlkes, Charlie Burnham, Doug Wieselman, Peter Apfelbaum, and Erik Lawrence in a section that was blatantly inspired by big band. Despite the grocery list of jazz genres, none of the music felt like a shameless rehash of old standards. Their power to look back, while still living in the present and future is one of the best things about the Hot 9.
The whole group displayed a fire in their playing, but didn’t try to overpower each other. They all played an integral part and enjoyed the fruits of everyone’s labor, like auditory socialists. It was easy to see that they were all just excited to be on stage with Butler, though. The entire band was all smiles every time the piano man would take a solo.
The fun they were having on stage was tangible and the crowd was quick to respond. I didn’t know an audience of people who would take every opportunity to brag about their AARP membership could get boisterous. They were hollering, grooving, and couldn’t stay still or quiet for more than a half-minute. At one point, someone yelled to the stage “What else you got?” Butler with all the cool in the world responded by telling him to “open your ears, guy.” Drummer Donald Edwards barrelled in with a smooth snare roll and the music did the rest of the talking.
The night’s final tune was an odyssey of a cover of Billy Preston’s “Will It Go Round In Circles.” The group utilized multiple funk, classical, and blues breakdowns, fading in and out of Preston’s hit song, to craft one of the best live covers I’ve ever heard. The last song of the night was also an apt description for the band. Butler, Bernstein & the Hot 9 take cues from the past, but don’t rely on it for everything because they’re looking to push boundaries instead of sitting on them. Jazz history isn’t their bible, but it’s a reference point. They use it to build original and (this can’t be underscored enough) potentially innovative music. Whatever’s next for them, it can’t come soon enough.