Living with "Grace and Mercy"

Jonathan Butler, Rendezvous in Tokyo

Jonathan Butler by Raj Naik
Jonathan Butler by Raj Naik
9 OCT 2013
by

True essence of instrumentation gives the voice a real place.

Living the good times from the bad times best describes Jonathan Butler’s long and colorful musical career that has bravely traveled across three continents: Africa, Europe and North America. Approaching the stages at Cotton Club Tokyo on September 17 and 18, and at Blue Note Tokyo on September 20 with his silent footsteps and wide, infectious grin, Jonathan seemed to have overcast his harsh struggles in life with a benevolent halo over his head, as the delicate strums of his African-styled guitar generated Hope, Faith, and Courage in his warm, compassionate and rhythmical songs.

Growing up in a huge, supportive family of musicians was destiny enough for Jonathan to dedicate his life’s passion to music. Although he has breathed days and nights of painful scars from the insufferable apartheid times in South Africa, those heartbreaking memories have solidified his spirit, and ironed the uneven path of his quest for the meaning of redemption, faith and love.

At a young age, Jonathan sought a spiritual mission that would caress the many blessings in his life, and uplift his Christian devotion through his melodies and lyrics. And, by his admirable gift for creativity in fusing the rhythmical gestures of gospel music, jazz, R&B and African tunes, world music has found a true, spiritual soul who is able to grasp an entity of musical cultures.

Offering the Japanese audience the strength of his sweet-sounding repertoire is no novel task for Jonathan. He has made his undying presence in Japan for over fifteen years—each time, planting a tender souvenir in every listener’s heart.

Jonathan, fresh in his morning white shirt and casual sweat pants, during his last day in Tokyo, revealed traces of his music passion that makes him today, one of the most exciting dedicated musicians of his generation.

Tokyo performances
“The shows at Blue Note and Cotton Club were great, fantastic—too short, but good audiences. I’ve played in Blue Note back a few times. I was in Tokyo in 2009 when Dave Koz was here, and with Brian Simpson. It was my first time at Cotton Club, though, and I had a wonderful time. I hope to come back next time. The Japanese audience seemed very appreciative of my music. They do love jazz. It was an incredible experience, and the feeling was mutual for me. I have one of the best bands around: Dan Lutz on bass, Dennis Hamm on keyboards, Jay Williams on drums, and of course, my daughter, Jodie doing the background vocals. I always kept the same band all through these years. Jay is one of my favorite drummers. And, Jodie…she is really growing up.”

From Africa to England to USA
“Moving from Africa to London to the U.S.—that has been really a lot of cultures. I’ve adapted well to the transitions. It’s all part of my destiny, my journey—it takes you anywhere. I can only thank God for all these experiences. I grew up in South Africa, but I always wanted to travel to the U.S. and make records there. I’ve been working with incredible musicians there now, so I’m really living in a dream-come-true. I was around 22-23 years old when I left South Africa. Then, I lived in London for over ten years. After that, my family and I moved to New York for about a year, then, I started to think about settling down in Los Angeles. I felt London was beautiful, and I raised my children there, which was fantastic, but musically, U.S. was really the place where I wanted to be. It was the jazz…and I was also spending more time in the U.S. than in England. After ten years, I said, I think it’s time for me to move. I started with Jive Records in the UK, then Jive USA, and then I ended up in New York. Doing this was the best thing that ever happened to my career. While living in New York, I felt the transition was too difficult for my kids. So, we decided to move to L.A. instead. It turned out to be a better place for all of us. The kids were still very small, and I made sure they grew up in the right environment, and with good education…all these things became parts of my life. I love it in L.A. I have many friends there, surrounded by great musicians…I worked with Brian Simpson, the late George Duke, Marcus Miller…all these guys live there, so it really works pretty well for me.”

Life in Africa
“I was very young during the apartheid era. It was a very huge experience to go through that phase. That was just twenty years ago when things had changed. The harsh experiences made me alive. It gave me much more appreciation for life and freedom. It was an experience that any of us who went through would never forget—just like people who came out of Holocaust...America in the ‘60s…these were difficult times. I coped with all that through music. Music makes you overcome a lot of things. Traveling has educated me, and music has allowed me to get away from all my struggles.”

Music background
“I started music when I was seven years old. My parents, brothers, and sisters were all musicians. So, at a very young age, I really loved music. It was something that I really wanted to do, and it’s who I am now. I live for music. I started with singing, at first, then, I learned the guitar. The guitar became a helping hand. I didn’t take it as seriously as I do now. My kids eventually developed interest in music as well. But, it’s only Jodie who is pursuing it professionally. She is learning everything by watching, being on stage, and she is always singing and writing. She’s really involved in music.”

African Music
“My voice may have the African pitch in it; as a tenor, my range is quite wide. I inject African influence in my music because that’s just the roots of who I am, and as an artist, that’s good, to let that come out through my music.
My guitar was made in South Africa by a guitar designer. It’s custom-made; the designer designed it for me, and I really like the sound. The wood is African teak, and sounds very different from the other instruments I have. The sound is very organic.”

Inspirations
“I was always inspired by Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Earl Klugh, George Benson, Joe Pass, Wes Montgomery…they’re my very big inspirations, and many of them whom I’ve worked with. In Africa, I was listening to everything: rock, pop, jazz…all kinds, as long as it’s good music. I was always interested in anything. I started out from pop, then R&B, jazz, fusion, African stuff, where I’m today. Today, I’m more involved in African music, world music. It’s a music that I really love—music from Cameroon, Zimbabwe, also Brazil. There are not that many artists who do what I do—maybe Richard Bono whom I really like. He’s very creative, and opens up to all kinds of possibilities.”

Religion
“My religious mission is another whole chapter in my life. It took me years to develop it, to let it come out. That started thirty years ago, but I didn’t want that to be part of what I do because that’s not just about playing music; it’s a lifestyle. That’s my life. It’s like someone being a Buddhist…it’s something very personal and I didn’t want that to just throw me in the air. My spiritual life is very, very important to me. It just so happens that now, I can compose the music, and perform it, and people understand that’s who I am. What led me to this mission was just a matter of time. Eventually, one day, I realized, this is what I want to do. It was the right time for me to write about it and record it. It has become a part of my life now…like coming in full circle…this is who I am now.

I didn’t sing gospel music in church, and I wasn’t a churchgoer then, but I was fully aware of the church. I go to church now, but I didn’t grow up in a church. It was almost ten years ago when I decided to compose these songs. My faith has become part of my concerts, and people know me for that, and not just jazz. At Cotton Club and Blue Note, I didn’t feel I had to talk about it. Sometimes, you don’t have to talk about it all the time, but just let it be. People can feel it in their hearts. They can feel, ‘This guy is not just an entertainer; there’s more to him than just singing.’ This time in Tokyo, I just didn’t feel it was the right time and place to sing the songs. I just wanted the people to experience the spirit, the essence of who I am, because next time I come back, I’ll give them more.”

Grace and Mercy
Grace and Mercy is my latest album released this year, and it was No. 1 in the Billboard charts. I felt really good. This is a record that came out really well in the gospel music world, jazz fusion, and is received very well. I tried to express the message of Hope, Courage, and Faith, very differently from my past albums.”

Music today
“I think that it’s important to get back to real music—the essence of real instrumentation, instead of synthesizers, computers, which are all good—but, I think true essence of instrumentation gives the voice a real place. Gregory Porter is one man who does this. He is a real, soulful man. What I like about him is he is all-organic, a real musician, and he is really fresh and true in his craft. The world needs people like him.
Technology has kind of tried to take over instrumentation. I’m an old-school person, so I believe in the authentic way. I believe in fresh writing and true instrumentation. We need to get back to this—not just popularity. Good music finds an audience. That’s the wisdom, the secret. You find your audience when you do something good. I will stay this way absolutely. I am not changing my style, or my guitar. This is who I am.
I like to be simple on stage because it allows me to be creative. If things are complicated, you can’t be too creative. I need space and simplicity. That’s how I can create music.”