Jazzman Jonathan Butler leaves crowd asking for more

Monday November 15 2010

Jonathan Butler and his custom-made guitar at the electrifying performance at the Bomas of Kenya last Sunday. Picture by Peter Martinsen

Jonathan Butler and his custom-made guitar at the electrifying performance at the Bomas of Kenya last Sunday. Picture by Peter Martinsen 

By Peter Martinsen

On my way to Bomas of Kenya last Sunday, I suddenly realised that the music scene has changed. Gradually but dramatically.

Just a couple of years ago many Nairobians would not even contemplate coughing up Ksh3,000 ($37.5) for a ticket to a high profile international jazz act, leaving the show to an exclusive few. Last Sunday however, almost a thousand jazz lovers turned up for a once-in-a- life time show for that price.

Indeed times have changed, with promoters and venues presenting a variety of choice for the picky upmarket audience.

Blending fine dining, promotion of an exclusive beer with a hip jazz crowd, the Sierra Jazz Safari concert is not merely a public relations stunt from a brewery, but an indication of a growing trend.

There has been much talk about East Africa as a growing economy which is waiting in line for a parking spot. It made me think, is the music industry finally starting to see the results of that?

Headlining last Sunday’s evening of jazz was smooth South African jazz maestro Jonathan Butler. The evening also, a bit to everyone’s surprise, showcased a string of young up-and-coming Kenyan artistes for the warm-up session.

Most interesting proved to be Valerie Kimani — Project Fame Season 1 winner — and her backing band. As opposed to the frequent vocal blunders from other curtain raisers, she was confident, mature and vocally focused than I have seen her before. She worked the crowd too like a true professional.

But the night belonged to Jonathan Butler, who was worth waiting for. This was his first Kenyan tour in an over 30 years career.

Butler came on stage alive and energizing, immediately thanking the lord for the possibility to be present.
His musical trademarks are intact and perhaps better presented than ever.

The characteristic guitar themes, often based on a gliding chord-like structure as opposed to singular notes, make his sound easily recognisable.

He still has full power and control of his voice, making some passages terrific not only in technical execution, but also in expression.

There is something flawless about his presentation that you only notice with musicians that have played since early childhood.

It’s a limitless control of tone and texture enabling the artist to leave behind the hurdles of instrumental technique, expressing mainly the deeper musical message.

It is relieving and interesting to witness, making the audience trust completely in the superiority of Butler’s stage ability.


Butler’s band is a study of superiority on many levels. It is composed of Americans who can pull off such a technical based performance and mix it successfully with rehearsed entertainment.

As a friend of mine put it, “Is there anything normal at all happening on that stage?”
Butler has hand-picked his musicians from the rich jazz habitats of southern US. Mainly keyboard player Arlington Jones made a great impression and gave the audience goose bums with his dynamic style of playing.

Although clearly an instrumentalist in international format himself, he maintained a defined role as a sideman, only taking over the sound-scape at appropriate intervals.

The element of energy is entertaining and Butler seems to be basing a lot of his stage appearance on that alone.

It was clear that he and his band were in a rehearsed state of “never leave the audience with a dull moment”, almost to an extent where it was over the top. It is difficult to blame an artist for “overplaying” but sometimes the band left a few of his slower, more soulful songs with limited room for reflection.

The crowd seemed to be most familiar with Butler’s earlier repertoire. The audience was treated with classics such as his Grammy nominated song Lies, as well as Africa; Love Songs; Candle Lights And You; but also gave a taste of his more recent compositions “You got to believe in something” and “So strong” from his 2010 CD.

The highlight of the evening came when Butler was alone on stage, entertaining the audience at close hand, with anecdotes as he drifted through a medley of his many compositions.

Creating a rare intimacy and honoring requests from the audience he suddenly had us all in his hand. Stripped of the backing band for a moment we got a closer look at this beaming talent and why he is what he has become what he is today.

Although a grandfather, Butler’s energy and music ability remains untouched and will no doubt do so for a long, long time.

Throughout his long career one thing stands out: consistency. Born in South Africa in 1961, Butler started singing and playing acoustic guitar as a child, touring with a travelling stage show. By the age of 12, he was signed to his first recording contract. Rocketing up the pop charts, Butler became the first black artist to be played on white radio in South Africa.

His popularity and fame spread fast. Emerging as a local teen idol, he joined Cape Town’s best-known jazz/rock band, Pacific Express, in 1978. With his band mates’ encouragement he developed as a composer and songwriter and two albums were recorded with the Pacific Express personnel.

But larger events were still awaiting the young artist. Hev was signed to Jive Records in 1977, and in the early 1980s moved to the United Kingdom where he remained for 17 years.

His international breakthrough came in 1987 with his Grammy nominated hit single, Lies, and his cover version of the Staple Singers’ song If You’re Ready (Come Go with Me),” which he performed with Ruby Turner.

Rather than loosing touch with his roots, Butler managed to cultivate a loyal following in Africa, the United States and Europe throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

In a career spanning over 30 years and 15 albums, Jonathan Butler has proved himself not only a major presence in contemporary and smooth jazz, but also a deeply religious and spiritual man, reflected in his several religious-themed albums such as 2002’s Surrender and 2004’s The Worship Project.

His newest album So Strong (2010) is a consolidation of his musical and vocal trademark of breezy guitar lines and strong vocals somewhere in between straight pop and popular jazz.

The CD stands as a powerful reflection on a tumultuous year wrought with immense personal loss, during which he lost his mother and one of his best friends while supporting his wife in her battle with cancer.
Characteristic however for Butler’s artistic life, the songs do not dwell in pain and self-absorption. Rather he aims to send a spiritual message, that you must raise your head and realise, that in every difficult situation, regardless the darkness of the moment, there is always room for hope.
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