Jonathan Butler: So Strong

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Posted September 13, 2010 by J Matthew Cobb in Reviews 1.0

jonathanbutler00Jazz man lands all the right notes on his surprisingly upbeat return to urban R&B

Cool jazz man Jonathan Butler hit the big time in the late ‘80’s at the very young age while pumping out R&B hits like “There’s One Born Every Minute I’m a Sucker (For You),” “Lies”and “Sarah, Sarah” (remember that) for Jive Records. For those who had been living under a rock for almost two decades, Butler found himself comfortable recording contemporary jazz and smooth quiet storm suitable to the taste buds of George Benson. By 2000, Butler had been a man of many coats – touching accessible pop, slick R&B, adult contemporary soul and acoustic crossover jazz. With that also came his image; going from smooth Sam Cooke to blonde-dyed curls to his present day light grey. After making a big splash on Kirk Whalum’s Gospel According to Jazz II performing his gospel radio hit “Falling In Love With Jesus,” a slight detour into religious albums, using a praise-and-worship status, followed. He became a regular on Israel & New Breed projects and even showed up for a best-selling live recording with Juanita Bynum. After recording a number of gospel projects, the South African native made a superb decision to revisit his urban roots on So Strong. The new album isn’t so much a return to the pop R&B that defined him in the eighties, but it’s tasteful mesh-up of the familiar genres, even the gospel, with a major focus on urban AC swagger.

With modern-day tough times and gruesome economics, it’s easy to assume where Butler gained his inspiration for the album title, but the album isn’t really about pouting and lamenting. He has reasons to cry with the pain and agony of losing his mother, his best friend and music producer Wayman Tisdale in 2010 and with his wife suffering with cancer. Instead he turns the mourning into dancing using a fresh canvas of positive, upbeat music celebrating the gift of life and love. Opening the set: “So Strong,” with its bouncy disco sound and Frankie Beverly soul, celebrates the turn-ons of passion. He uses the familiar Romans 8:28 credo on “You Got to Believe In Something” without getting too preachy to help ease the downtrodden with some welcoming encouragement during the hard times. But the album gets satisfying better as it takes off with wings of an eagle using its bundle of groove-induced instrumentals. “Make Room for Me” is by far the album’s standout with its saucy tempo and delicious odes to the iconic contemporary jazz sounds of George Benson. “Avia/For My Baby,” a sweet romantic dedication to his newborn granddaughter, and the funky jazz of “Good Times” both set the pace of relaxation, although spread out across the album to jazz lover’s scorn as interludes between the urban vocal tracks. But the urban material presented on So Strong Jonathan Butler does well. Angie Stone delivers splendid harmony with Butler on the radio-ready R&B teaser, “Be Here With You” and he beefs up his sexiness on “Factual” and “Feels So Good.” The latter, designed like a jazzy R&B Kem-ish track, features that extra sizzle using sax pro Dave Koz.

Not much to gripe about here, especially if you’re looking for a wind-down album with that occasional thrill and tempo. Even on his remake of Johnny Nash’s 1972 hit “I Can See Clearly Now,” where he’s definitely stands in need of a better drum machine and when a quip would bubble up, he takes the song back to its simple melodic form, redeems its soft opening and honors the original using a moving gospel sway. Only the fade is in need of that magical Kirk Franklin/Andrae Crouch gospel choir finesse – using their high-spirited ad-libs. Compared to his other albums, Butler gains some considerable ground as he grooms himself into a cool, laid-back Stevie Wonder. There are some cookie-cutter moments in the production some will protest about, but overall, So Strong is the album that unites his spirituality, R&B roots and jazz world all together like one big happy family.

J MATTHEW COBB

HIFI DETAILS

  • Release Date: 11 May 2010
  • Label: Mack Avenue Records/Rendezvous
  • Producers: Jonathan Butler
  • Track Favs: So Strong, Be Here With You, Make Room for Me, Avia/For My Baby, Feels So Good

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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