Although Jonathan Butler records, tours and performs with his fellow superstars in the smooth jazz genre, his multitude of musical talents has always made him stand out among his peers who are primarily instrumental artists. As his popular 2005 Rendezvous Music debut Jonathan proved, he’s definitely powerful when it comes to writing breezy acoustic guitar melodies. But when he sings, either secular trademark hits like “Sarah Sarah” and “Lies” or songs from his worship CDs (“Falling In Love With Jesus”), his soaring, gritty but beautiful voice transports listeners to deeper realms both emotionally and spiritually.
When he performs in large, luxurious venues and huge festivals across the U.S. as he did in 2005 and 2007 with Jazz Attack cohorts Rick Braun, Richard Elliot and Peter White, Butler must feel light years away from the three bedroom shack he shared with his parents, 12 siblings and another 13 nieces and nephews while growing up in South Africa.
His story is unique from all American bred smooth jazz artists, and even the simplest of his songs reflect his sense of wonder at his early discovery of his unique gift of music. He remembers the feeling he had when he picked up the first guitar handcrafted for him by his father, who was also a guitar and banjo player. His fingers had to avoid all the nails that held it together. From the time he was three, he was playing music to support his family, and by seven he was out on tour, performing and staying in a tent with a group of local families who formed a road show band called the Golden City Dixies. He went to a formal school for a few years, but likes to say he has learned so much more from the proverbial school of hard knocks.
Butler’s wonderful new CD/DVD package Live in South Africa allows everyone to experience the magic of his charismatic live performances for themselves. But it’s more than simply a fun 13-track audio and 5 track video experience. The concert is Johannesburg that inspired the release also marked the emotional return of a native son to the once-oppressed land, where he was the first non-white artist ever to be played on South African radio. This poignant homecoming element reminds people of the odds he faced and the twists and turns of his life and musical journey. Viewers of the concert footage on the DVD will marvel at the cool split screens and unique camera angles that create a rare intimacy with him. But the real heart and soul of the video portion of Live In South Africa is the batch of wistful film clips of the singer revisiting the many humble places of his youth. These show just how far he’s come, but in his heart, Butler still connects with the people of these small towns, and provides them with the kind of hope they need.
With the help of a native choir, he takes the audience back on Disc One (the audio portion) to his 1986 debut Introducing Jonathan Butler with an uplifting romp through the mostly instrumental “Afrika” before offering sizzling performances of the gospel-flavored “This is Love” (he’s talking about the divine kind!), the urgent romantic plea “I’m On My Knees” and his expansive take on Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” which he has turned into a politically charged setpiece. Even if you’re not a huge reggae or Marley fan, Butler’s delivery makes this an important spiritual experience.
The hit parade of sweet sensuous soul begins with an amiable, guitar and vocal only “Medley” of older vocal tunes (“Sing Me Your Love Song,” “Take Good Care Of Me”). Later he gets the crowd singing along on the audience favorite “Lies” (which features some cool scat passages) and two acoustic driven pieces that truly epitomize his dual approach to instrumental music: the low key acoustic ballad “Song For Elizabeth” and the happy grooving jam “Wake Up”. He wraps the show with a mostly instrumental version (backing vocals only) of his most durable hit “Sarah Sarah,” which never gets old despite the hundreds of times he’s been obligated to play it. There’s also a fun bonus studio track “Sarah Sarah (Mano Mix)” that recasts the song with a fiery horn section and more thumping groove.
Most smooth jazz labels don’t engage in live CD releases for a number of reasons, but it’s great that Rendezvous felt that all of Butler’s talents (and his special story) proved worthy of it. For the artist, Live In South Africa works on many emotional, spiritual and political levels, but for the fan, it’s also an irresistible document of one of pop music’s truly great performers