With only an occasional charting hit to his credit, Jonathan Butler has long been simmering just below the mainstream radar, but has rigorously maintained a fruitful career as an internationally renowned jazz and soul festival circuit staple for years.
With only an occasional charting hit to his credit, Jonathan Butler has long been simmering just below the mainstream radar, but has rigorously maintained a fruitful career as an internationally renowned jazz and soul festival circuit staple for years. Over those years, as brown naturals turned to bleach blond curls and ultimately to a sage gray, Butler has matured into a solid, sometimes even earnest vocalist and a top-notch guitarist. One can hear Butler's ease and subtle intricacies on the guitar throughout this pleasing set. A peer to guitarists Earl Klugh and George Benson, Butler's nimble fingers uncover a detailed conversation with his instrument that is both playful and intimate, particularly on mid tempo instrumental jams like "Make Room For Me" and the sweating glass of ice tea, "Avia/For My Baby." Butler's guitar adds plucky sweet accents to the Van McCoy-tinged production on the string-heavy single, "So Strong." Guitarist Rick Braun and saxophonist Dave Koz also bring their own signature aplomb to these musical proceedings.
Vocally, Butler is more engaged than he's been in some years on these recordings. There is a driving presence and immediacy to songs like "Color Green" that displays a power and excitement we-from time to time-have been missing from Butler since 1997's shimmering gold standard, Do You Love Me? Butler more directly channels long time vocal influence Stevie Wonder on the stripped-down cover of "I Can See Clearly Now," the airy "Feels So Good" (which lives up to its title) and the radio ditty "I'm Right Here." Butler is more powerfully himself, and a worthy duet partner for Angie Stone, on the smoldering hip-to-hip grinder, "Be Here With You."
As with almost every Jonathan Butler project since 1985's Introducing Jonathan Butler, there is always one song that stands head and shoulders above the rest, like 2002's "This Is Love" or 1997's "The Other Side of The World." This time, bar none, that track is the anthemic "You've Got To Believe In Something." A continuation of Butler's more recent gospel-oriented projects, this marquee tune urgently implores listeners to believe in something to anchor themselves in the midst of today's seemingly endless storms. Blending a fervent gospel choir with the cha cha Havana rhythms and a panoramic horn section, the simply penned secular meets spiritual song is vintage Butler all the way. Gentle, yet groovy, buoyant, but substantive: So Strong is also classic Butler, through and through. Recommended.
By L. Michael Gipson