In the smooth jazz world there are fewer artists more prolific than South African guitarist/singer Jonathan Butler but his career trajectory came to an abrupt halt four years ago when his home was gutted by fire. Butler suffered second degree burns rescuing his granddaughter from the blaze and as he was recovering he was forced to face more challenges – the loss of loved ones and seeing close friends suffering the impact of difficult issues. His response was to grow closer to his God to find the comfort and solace that he needed. His ministry at the El Paso Destiny Family Christian Centre helped him regain his confidence and he soon found the motivation to make music again… a music that both praises and thanks the God he’s proud to serve.
The end result is the 11 track long player, ‘Free, just out on Rendezvous Music. ‘Free’ is a Gospel album. Butler’s message is in his music. For instance the opener, ‘You Are The One’ is a celebration of God’s faithful consistency; ‘Where Would I Be’ is a prayer of thanks for support; and on the title cut Butler suggests that his career parallels Joseph in the Bible. Joseph, of course, was sold into bondage but was eventually freed by the power of prayer and the support of God. Butler believes that in his early career he too was exploited … by show business, by promoters, by record labels, by the demands of the “business”. However, through prayer and his ministry he now considers himself “free”.
So not a straightforward listen. The album delivers complex, demanding messages and how you view those messages, of course, depends on any faith and creed you may follow (or not follow). Sonically, the album (on which all the tracks are vocals) is not as complicated. The overall soundscape is jazz lite with a garnish of pop and an occasional soul undertow and given the artist’s roots there are clear African flavours. ‘Sing Africa’ is the most obvious example … a jaunty and optimistic item. The aforementioned ‘You Are The One’ is built on an African ambience too while the nearest to a proper soul groove is the loose ‘Never Find A Better Love’.
My album standouts offer two different sides to Jonathan Butker. ‘He Is God’ is a big, bold , brassy production. Full-on, it’s message is self-explanatory but musically think Stevie Wonder meeting the Sounds Of Blackness. Much more intimate is the lovely ‘New Day’ . Here Butler eschews the guitar for the piano and with it weaves a simple riff behind his beguiling, believable vocal.
Jonathan Butler’s ‘Free’ is out now.