Been a while since we’ve had new music from (now) veteran South African singer/guitarist Jonathan Butler. We think his last album was a Christmas set in 2019 which was preceded by ‘Close To You’ – a dip into (mainly) the Burt Bacharach songbook. So, it’s with a measure of delight that we can announce that the genial Jonathan has just released a new album, ‘Ubuntu’. That Bantu word literally means “humanity” but nowadays, thanks to Desmond Tutu, there’s a broader definition. Butler says: “Ubuntu is a philosophy based in South Africa and spread by Archbishop Desmond Tutu which states, ‘I am me because of you. You are you because of me. We are not separate. We are connected.’”
So, by using a Bantu word and its associated philosophy for the title of the album, JB is clearly saying he’s “coming home” to craft a music that reflects the richness of South Africa’s musical culture and to deliver that unifying message of “ubuntu”. No surprise then that one of the tracks is called ‘Coming Home’ on which Russell Gunn’s trumpet recalls the sound of the wonderful Hugh Masekela. The album’s title track should also be seen as one of the key cuts. ‘Ubuntu’ (the track) delvers a distinct South African vibe, accentuated by both ostinatos (the repetition of the tune’s main motif) and Butler’s mix of native language vocals and scat. ‘Rainbow Nation’ is another obvious homage to the artist’s homeland. That one’s a vocal; ‘Springtime In Afrika’ – an instrumental with vocal interjections, is another track where the genesis is obvious.
The album’s other tracks are less specific about South Africa, but they all deliver the “ubuntu” message – songs and tunes that speak of love, peace and unity. The immediate grabber amongst them is a cover of Stevie Wonder’s ‘Superwoman’. Here, it’s given a strikingly, unusual treatment and as a bonus, Stevie adds his distinctive harmonica. Another cover cut is Tommy Sims’ ‘When Love Comes In’. The guest on this one is Keb’ Mo’ who adds vocals and guitar. The LP’s third cover is a take on ‘Silver Rain’ – a Marcus Miller tune that was originally inspired by the Harlem poet Langston Hughes. Here Butler takes to electric guitar to play the parts made famous on the original by Eric Clapton. Sonically, the groove is more Caribbean than South African but the joyous message in the music fits beautifully with the album’s theme.
Amongst the other guests are Yellowjackets keyboardist Russell Ferrante whose piano stars on the meditative ‘Peace In Shelter’. That one also features Butler’s wife Nadira Kimberly Scruggs on violin. Then, of course, there’s the aforementioned Marcus Miller. He’s the album producer and his distinctive bass lines – played on electric, synth, acoustic and fretless basses – give the 11 tracker a real unity.