Five decades after he toured the world with Thelonious Monk and recorded with just about everyone on the legendary 1960s hard-bop scene, Edward “Butch” Warren, Jr. finally has an album under his own name. He is 71 years old.
Save for his stint as Blue Note Records’ house bassist in New York City and a brief period of touring, Warren has lived in D.C. all his life. But it took another international tour to produce a record of Warren’s own.
The music on French 5tet was recorded in Paris last year with a team of four French musicians and was broadcast on the radio there. It’s all Warren-centric material, including four originals; two classic tunes whose definitive versions he recorded; one of his favorite standards (“Laura”); and a quick lope through “The Theme,” that classic tune-between-tunes written by Warren’s first major advocate in New York, trumpeter Kenny Dorham.
Butch Warren – “Eric Walks”
The most rewarding element of the album is Warren’s four compositions, all of which ride on plainspoken melodies, loaded with pep, that tease some spot in the brain where joy wins out over concern. On three of Warren’s tunes, the melodies are recited in an almost careful unison by guitarist Jean-Philippe Bordier and tenor saxophonist Pierrick Menuau, the organizer of this project who himself has some D.C. history in him (a Frenchman, he studied at Howard University in the early 1980s).
But French 5tet’s opener, the Warren composition “A Little Chipie,” finds the bassist swinging the jaunty melody. For the first minute of the record, Warren’s idiosyncratic but sure articulation and soft-sandpaper tone fill the spotlight he’s deserved for years. The first time Warren presumably ever played the “Chipie” melody on record was with Monk in 1964 – during the bassist’s only other visit to Paris. Taking his solo on “Blue Monk,” which went on to become track one of the famous Monk record Live in Paris, Vol. 2, Warren quotes a line and a half of “Chipie’s” ditty-like melody.
Throughout French 5tet, there’s an appropriate sense of magnitude, but there’s also a joyful lightness. Warren’s four counterparts don’t swing as hard as his old Blue Note accomplices – we’re talking the likes of Dexter Gordon and Hank Mobley, after all – but they present a respectful and respectable platform on which this near-forgotten legend can be heard and appreciated.
If there is one serious issue with this album, it is the performance of “Barack Obama.” The bassist wrote this tune late in his life, but it may go down as the definitive Butch Warren composition. During a performance at Twins Jazz last month, he was nestled into a rhythm section with the great pianist Freddie Redd and drummer Nasar Abadey. With a talented three-saxophone line carrying “Barack Obama’s” melody, the band sauntered and flowed, swinging deeply and proudly through the brief “B” section. But none of this occurs on the French 5tet record.
As Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) wrote in 1963, “One of the most baffling things about America is that despite its essentially vile profile, so much beauty continues to exist here. Perhaps it’s as so many thinkers have said, that it is because of the vileness, or call it adversity, that such beauty does exist.” When it’s played right, Warren’s sunlight-drenched ode communicates that notion of struggle leavened by gratification. It’s a song that runs deeper than any sheet music can convey; it needs a spiritual reading.
There’s still a chance that this tune will receive another recording that delivers its message on that level. Other than that, French 5tet is a heartily enjoyable and long-overdue celebration of a jazz icon. It’s worth delving into.
A very limited number of French 5tet albums have been printed. They can be purchased for the time being by clicking here.