Though Jonathan Butler’s all-star 60th Birthday celebration was decidedly landlocked at Herb Alpert’s swanky Vibrato Grill Jazz up off Mulholland Drive in Los Angeles, the vibrant, high-spirited and eminently grooving evening had all the spontaneous markings of one of the great recent perennial traditions in contemporary jazz – The Smooth Jazz Cruise. The South African born guitarist has been a charismatic presence on those excursions for years, headlining shows, participating in jams and, perhaps most memorably of all, serving as maestro for one of the cruise’s most anticipated events: The Gospel Show.
The B-day bash was introduced by cruise regular, comic Alonzo Boden, who tried in vain to make roast-like comments about the much beloved and, aside from his short stature and unique fashion choices, hard to poke fun at Butler. The house was packed with genre greats, including Marcus Miller, Kirk Whalum and Rich Braun, who took the stage and performed – much as they do on the casual freewheeling affairs at sea.
Though everyone was restlessly waiting for the man of the hour to perform, the show’s organizers wisely ensured that the first our ran as a slow-simmering tribute/buildup to the main event. One of most dynamic of the unexpected pleasures was the opening act, Andrea Lisa, who complemented her sensual R&B vocals on Butler’s classic “This is Love” with crackling electric guitar licks. She stayed in the ensemble when Whalum came up and joyfully shared what he called a song “based on a praise chorus,” heralding Butler’s own faith/driven artistry with a graceful and smoky turned soaring high octane gospel jazz number.
When Miller took the stage, he pulled his hidden bass from the back of the stage, then prefaced the atmospheric soul jazz ballad he played – which naturally featured his trademark snappy bass vibes, backed by keyboardist Arlington Jones’ tasty Rhodes harmonies - by telling the crowd that he and Butler are in the finishing stages of recording the latter’s new album. Whalum ran back up to jam with Miller on the hands-down funkiest joint of the night, a slamming, bottom heavy yet buoyant romp through Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.”
No B-day bash would be complete without musical testimony from the guest of honor’s family, and Butler’s daughter and longtime tour mate and collaborator Jodie brought the proverbial house down with the much-needed post-pandemic uplift of her dad’s 2010 power ballad “You Got To Believe in Something.” Butler’s wife Nadira then added some cool classical-flavored jazz to the eclectic mix with a sensual, lyrical tune that showcased her mastery of the violin.
Looking super hipster with his tan hat, brown jacket, black jeans and whit tennies, Butler held court for the next hour or so with a run through of a few singalong greatest hits and deeper album cuts that reflected the music of his heritage that shaped his artistry and his remarkable journey from entertaining in his small South African village to an impactful career performing all over the world.
He launched with the exotic and intoxicating “African Moon,” a fast rolling, mostly instrumental tune featuring his snazzy foreign language scatting and his punchy acoustic guitarisma, in addition to explosive solos by Jones and drummer Ron Otis. Before doing a little time traveling back to the late 80s with his easy flowing, autobiographical, also scat-tinged “7th Avenue,” Butler offered a bit of insight into his formative genre influences, most notably George Benson and Earl Klugh. He listened to them growing up in the 70s, never dreaming that one day he would create a legacy of his own in contemporary jazz. Besides the guitar greats, another American style that had a huge impact on Butler was R&B, and he invited singer Heidi Rachelle up for a playful, funked out twist on The Staples Singers’ inviting “If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me).”
The rest of the show, Butler focused on the passion-packed vocal tunes that have made him a staple on smooth jazz radio and one of the festival and cruise circuit’s most in demand performers. He reached back to the late 90s for “Do You Love Me?” which began as a sultry romantic meditation before evolving into edgier, improvisational territory. Though he didn’t have his trumpet on hand, Rick Braun ran up to add vocal harmonies to what is probably Butler’s most fan requested audience participation hit, “Sarah Sarah.” Butler had fun with this one as usual, engaging in a rambunctious singalong of the lines “You cheated on me/With a white lie…”
The cheatin’ heart theme of that classic eased effortlessly into another infectious, crowd friendly Butler smash, “Lies.” Rather than wrap the show with that kind of familiarity as he often does, he chose to share a brand new piece, the soaring blues/funk/gospel driven “This Is Where Love Comes In,” that he and Miller composed for his upcoming album. Curiously, he didn’t invite Miller (or Whalum, for that matter) up to play on that or any other tune. One can only hope he’s saving those kinds of impromptu ensemble surprises for the 2022 Smooth Jazz Cruise.