Fans of Norbert Leo Butz are used to a performer who delivers the complete package on stage – the consummate singing actor for whom the theatre context of the song is paramount. To listen to him on a CD at first seems strange. We miss the irresistible kinetic presence, and yet, it is not long into his first solo recording, Memory and Mayhem (Broadway Records/2013) that we find ourselves completely seduced by this voice that is crying the blues.
And it is not because the voice is particularly lush or beautiful, because it is not. It is, in fact, often gravelly, sometimes smoky, always supremely musical, however. It is not for his range as a vocalist, though Butz possesses a solid technique. Rather, it is because the song sounds as if it is being liberated from deep within the singer’s soul. Standing at the mike for the first time in August 2012 in this Manhattan cabaret, Norbert Leo Butz interprets his sets with confessional intensity.
The theme, he tells us, is memory – how we remember, how we revise our memories over time, how memory helps us preserve love and cope with loss. And, indeed, not only are his selections personal favorites, but he attaches to the music intimate anecdotes that internalize the songs.
Norbert Leo Butz’s preference leans toward blues and jazz, and he is accompanied by an excellent jazz quintet led by Michael J. Moritz, Jr. (music director, keyboards), Steve Gilewski (Bass), Gary Seligson (drums), Kenny Brescia (guitar), and Dave Rimelis (violin, guitar, banjo) with Lauren Kennedy in backup vocals. These musicians jam with infectious beat, rich, dark, mournful tonal color, and they tie the sets together with compelling obbligatos. Moritz’s arrangements are ingratiating, allowing Butz the opportunity to improvise a line along with the musicians.
Butz begins with a set that includes Home, Van Morrison’s The Way Young Lovers Do, and a stunning setting by Kurt Elling and Robert Amster of Theodore Roethke’s The Waking. In this last song, Butz’s declamatory style does justice to the poet’s haunting verse. He then switches gears from these evocative, nostalgic pieces to an amusing rendition of Jason Robert Brown’s I Could Be in Love with Someone Like You cut from The Last Five Years. More than anywhere else on the disc, we feel the presence of Norbert Leo Butz, the actor, who can make song as natural as speech and whose sardonic humor has a wicked edge.
n the set about “love gone south,” Butz’s caterwauling sound in Killing the Blues (Rowland Salley) has a gut wrenching intensity, while in Jimmy Webb’s If These Walls Could Speak, he offers a contrast of appealing legato and sorrowful tenderness. He dedicates these memories to family he has lost (his sister Teresa and his brother Tom) and goes on to open up about his own weddings, his domestic situation, and his love for his three daughters. Georgia on My Mind is a touching version of the familiar Hoagy Carmichael/Ray Charles song, here dedicated to his baby daughter, while in No One (Alicia Keys etal), he recalls helping to raise his two older girls from his first marriage after the divorce.
Inserted for ironic effect, the mash up of Sixteen Tons (Tennessee Ernie Ford) and Great Big Stuff (David Yazbek) doesn’t quite take off, but the final elegiac group of Tom Waits’ Broken Bicycles, David Gray’s Be Mine, and the encore, Gary Nicholson’s Shadow of Doubt, which he sings as a gospel prayer, are rich in emotion with Butz’s voice stretched to aching, his phrasing spun like a cellist’s arcing bow.
The live recording, itself, produced by Moritz and Aaron Ankrum, is notable for the forwardly placed sound of the performer and the artful inclusion – not intrusion – of the enthusiastic audience.
In the New York Times’ review of Butz’s live appearances, Stephen Holden praised the singer saying, “Norbert Leo Butz has the soul of a poet.” A poet, indeed – and a jazz musician for whom improvisation is the language of his heart. Norbert Leo Butz as an interpreter is not confined by music and lyrics. Rather he uses them simply as a roadmap for the expression and articulation of a highly individual journey.