It feels easy to skip John Boutte at whatever festival’s taking place (in this case, Satchmo Summerfest 2014). Despite the name cache, Boutte often gets slotted into day sets (3:45p on a Friday??) rather than headlining spots. On top of that you can see him any time; he’s got an ongoing standing gig at d.b.a. in the French Quarter (that’s coincidentally also a bit earlier than others, 8p instead of a 11p). But perhaps the laziest grounds for dismissal, Boutte is wrongfully tabbed as New Orleans jazz-lite. Unlike the big brass bands he’ll perform in between, there are no hip-hop elements or horn lines, and the dancing being done is couples swaying and swinging rather than bouncing. This is jazz’s closest offering to yacht or soft rock in terms of that mass appeal, easy listening.
Stifle those thoughts for long enough to catch a moment of his performance though, and Boutte’s just picked up another fan. Like any great New Orleans’ musician, his combination of skill and showmanship is undeniable—even if it takes a few extra moments to appreciate why.
Boutte technically plays an instrument—he started as a trumpeter in HS and brought out a cornet towards the end of his set to perform a quick instrumental of “La Vie en Rose.” But he’s unlike other New Orleans musicians casual fans can rattle off, because John Boutte is a vocalist first and foremost. Yet given the standards of musicianship required just to get a gig in town, of course Boutte’s voice is built from the same combination of technique, practice and experience behind Rebirth brass line, Kermit’s trumpet or Troy’s trombone. You just need to recognize what’s happening in front of you.
Therefore a Boutte set is the coolest, mist engaging choir lesson you’ll ever attend. Boutte’s mouth exaggerates all the different formations necessary to shape pending vowel sounds, hard or soft consonants, syllable splits and duration of the notes he’s singing. He’s able to growl like Louis Armstrong or belt like a diva within the same tune (“Basin Street Blues”). It seems he can scat (“Straighten Up and Fly Right”) as effortlessly as he can shift into beautiful tonality and carry a tune with merely a minimalist electric guitar accompaniment (“I Get Ideas” and “Muddy Water (A Mississippi Moan)”).
Boutte’s list of technical virtuosity simply goes on: He demonstrates the ability to be dissonant ala Gilberto to Getz (“I Cover The Waterfront”), to play with dynamics instantaneously, and to sing in syncopation as if his voice was as easy to control as a piece of hand percussion. But the best part of Boutte’s performance is how casual he remains throughout it all. He can smirk at himself when a particular sneer (needed for harder vowels, like a long E) gets cartoonish. He’s comfortable interacting with the crowd in all sorts of ways, everything from pointing to drunk admirers pleading for notice to restarting a song and ribbing his guitarist for an errant choice of keys. And Boutte’s longevity, knowledge, and admiration for the craft came to the forefront when he took a moment to honor Satchmo before launching a cover of “Someday (You’ll Be Sorry).” Performing right after a seminar on Armstrong’s civil rights advocacy, Boutte recognized the equality he worked for while still acknowledging the importance of Armstrong’s mission today. “There was a time he couldn’t eat in restaurants here, but things have changed. Still, there’s whole lot of changing to be done.”
Naturally, the brilliance of Boutte is impossible without a strong backing band—one that’s not only excellent, but that’s flexible and willing to compliment rather than come to the forefront. At Satchmofest, the group jumps genre to genre (often swapping to secondary and third instruments) without a hitch. There’s PBS Jazz, blues, covers of Armstrong, Willie Nelson and various crooners. Even the solos being taken (this is a jazz band still) are done largely in style over substance, forgoing any showy technique for something tastefully grooving a track along. (That’s not to say all the solos were sans high points, trumpeter Jerry Moran nearly stole the show on “Basin Street Blues.”) Boutte, for his part, demonstrated his awareness of this—encouraging applause for his highlighted bandmates after songs and introducing the full band way earlier in than set (pre-song two) than most.
It feels odd to get excited for what, at its core, could be viewed as a cover band performance (in fact, not every selection in Boutte’s 10+ song set is a traditional standard). But towards the end of it, the singer reminds you why it’s worth going against all those instincts telling you to skip. Boutte introduces a song he says gets performed most weeks at d.b.a., one of the most covered tracks of modern times (pick your version—Leonard Cohen, Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, the entire cast of The Voice, etc.). His take on “Hallelujah” (“HalleLouis” for the occasion) is a traditional one, but whether it’s the crowd leaning in, Boutte’s power even while singing softly, or maybe a few Abita Ambers, it feels more than. That’s the ultimate feeling when leaving a Boutte performance—you may not be sure what compelled you to attend, but you’re sure as hell glad you did.
1) Come On Down To New Orleans
2) I Cover The Waterfront (Johnny Green)
3) Straighten Up and Fly Right (Nat King Cole)
4) I Get Ideas (Julio Sanders)
5) Basin Street Blues (W. Nelson)
6) Someday (You’ll Be Sorry) (L. Armstrong)
7) Muddy Water (A Mississippi Moan) (Bessie Smith)
8) La Vie En Rose Instrumental (Edith Piaf)
9) La Vie En Rose
10) Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)