Billy Butler & Al Casey Revisite


GUITAR ODYSSEY / YOUMANS: Tea for Two. HANDY: St. Louis Blues. CROSBY-YOUNG-WASHINGTON: A Ghost of a Chance. STRAYHORN: Take the “A” Train. RUBY-KALMAR: Three Little Words. HERBERT-DUBIN: Indian Summer. CASEY-BUTLER: Prologue for a Blues. Al & Billy Blues. WEILL-BRECHT: Mack the Knife. HARBACH-HAMMERSTEIN-KERN: Who? (2 tks). CASEY-BUTLER: Al & Billy Fast Blues / Billy Butler, Al Casey, gtr; Jackie Williams, dm / Fremeaux & Associes FA 5689

Hughes Panassié, as most jazz aficionados know, was a musical reactionary who despised all arranged jazz, the Swing Era, bebop, cool school etc. His thing was to promote and occasionally supervise recording sessions of what he perceived as “true jazz,” which for him meant small groups of New Orleans and/or Chicago jazz musicians playing jam sessions. The most famous session he supervised took place in New York in 1938, in which he revived the career of New Orleans-born trumpeter Tommy Ladnier, who died the following year, but he continued to arrange sessions until his death in 1974.

This is one of them. Recorded in New York on July 11 & 12, 1974, five months before Panassié died. In this instance, he decided to pair the talents of Al Casey, one of Fats Waller’s guitarists, with Billy Butler, whose experience had included accompanying Sonny Stitt, Jimmy Smith and Dizzy Gillespie. For Panassié, this was a pretty daring step, but as you can see from the song titles they stuck to old standards from the 1910s, ‘20s and ‘30s with the exception of the two duo-improvisations. Panassié was ecstatic about the results, stating that “This record is the only one of its kind. You won’t have heard one even remotely like this, not ever… It teems with beautiful music, and the more you hear it, the more you’ll love it.” So let’s see if we’ll love it as much as Mr. Panassié, shall we?

The picking is clean and, for the most part, the tunes are bouncy. It’s not difficult telling the two guitarists apart in their solos—Butler is the bluesier and more modern-sounding (left channel), Casey the swingier and more conventional (right channel)—but they do blend their styles together much better than you might expect going into this album. Casey is also more adept at keeping time with his chordal style, which was de rigeur for most jazz guitarists in the era before Charlie Christian and Oscar Moore. (Django also changed the face of jazz guitar playing, but he was as adept at playing those chunka-chunka chords as were Casey and Dick McDonough.) The one down side to this album is that, working with Casey, Butler’s playing is more circumscribed than normal for him. Panassié didn’t like bop or modern jazz and Casey wouldn’t have been able to adapt to it, so they kept the harmonies tonal and the chord positions set at normal.

Although Butler does throw some Django-isms into his playing (listen to Tea for Two) while Casey does not, the delights of this album come more from hearing Casey stretch out a bit (as in Three Little Words) which he seldom got a chance to do when playing with Waller. In some of these tracks, one is scarcely even aware of Williams’ drums, so quietly and subtly does he play. I a nutshell, Casey is stretching his musical vocabulary as far as it will go on these recordings while Butler is purposely “playing it minimal” so as not to throw the older musician off. As an interesting sidelight, the older guitarist outlived the younger one. Butler, nine years Casey’s junior, died in 1994 at the age of 66 while Casey made it to 2005 when he died of colon cancer at age 89, and had been active as a musician as late as 2004.

The album is indeed a relaxed, genial meeting of two outstanding guitarists of different eras, but to laud it as highly as Panassié did, you have to have fairly narrow tastes and an understanding of jazz that does not include extended chords or the more daring improvisations of Charlie Christian, Oscar Moore, Chuck Wayne, Tal Farlow or Barney Kessel (not to mention Billy Butler in other circumstances).  It is, however, one of those lazy-summer-afternoon kind of jazz records that will put you in a good mood without sounding too hot or stomping when you want something cool and laid-back to listen to.

—© 2019 Lynn René Bayley

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