By Davis Inman
Henry Butler & Steven Bernstein, Viper’s Drag (Impulse)
There’s no doubt that hot jazz is, well, hot again. Just look at the recent New York Hot Jazz Festival, which saw young practitioners of the genre exploring tunes that were recorded nearly 90 years ago by Fats Waller and Bix Beiderbecke. But here’s an even fresher take on hot jazz: 64-year-old pianist Henry Butler and 52-year-old ace trumpeter-arranger Steven Bernstein’s romp through tunes by Waller and Jelly Roll Morton on Viper’s Drag, which infuses hot jazz with contemporary New York avant-garde influences. Butler, who also composed three of the songs here, makes his triumphant return to the newly re-launched Impulse label. (His first two albums were released on the label in the ’80s.) Bernstein is comfortable in a range of styles, from jazz and funk to Americana (the late drummer Levon Helm was a onetime employer). In his charts, Bernstein has captured some of the pianist’s stylistic quirks, which he dubbed “Henryisms” and wrote into parts for different members of the Hot 9 band. The opener, which is the title track, establishes a solid foundation for this meeting of the minds. The track begins with ecstatic piano and drums, and then the horns join in, building to a kind of New Orleans funk groove. Butler guides the ensemble through 7 glorious minutes of this 1934 Waller tune, with impressive stride piano playing throughout. Butler’s “Dixie Walker” has more of a classic Dixieland feel, with some hot ensemble passages, clarinet obbligatos and violin wails. Butler sings on a languid version of “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,” accompanying himself with his highly expressive piano work. Bernstein is the behind-the-scenes star here, adding an unpredictable, bluesy wildness to the music, which nods to jazz’s early pioneers.