UMS's season starts with Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9's new spin on New Orleans jazz


Butler, Bernstein & The  Hot 9

Henry Butler, Steven Bernstein & The Hot 9 promise a U-M-worthy take on Jelly Roll Morton's "Wolverine Blues."

New York meets New Orleans in Ann Arbor on Friday, Sept. 8, as Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9 bring their unique twist on classic jazz to a special concert at Downtown Home & Garden/Bill's Beer Garden.

The show, which opens the new season of the University Musical Society, continues a successful partnership of the great New Orleans pianist and singer Henry Butler with Steven Bernstein, the accomplished New York trumpeter and bandleader known for working in a number of different styles with various ensembles.

The two first met through the Robert Altman movie Kansas City and the touring band that arose from it. They did a four-day gig together at New York’s Jazz Standard, “and history was made,” Bernstein recalls in a recent phone interview. Since then, Butler and Bernstein have made time for at least a few joint concerts with The Hot 9 every year.

Butler, Bernstein & The Hot 9 released an acclaimed album, Viper’s Drag, in 2014, with Butler’s original compositions joining fresh takes on classic tunes by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller. In concert, the band is known to throw in wild cards like an occasional Billy Preston song.

“It’s not really New Orleans music; it’s our music, but it’s rooted in New Orleans music,” Bernstein explains. Regardless of the heritage of any particular song, the band swings hard, seamlessly blending old and new into something fresh in a way that only the best musicians can do.

“It’s just some really amazingly powerful music. This music has a way to get to people. It’s soulful, it’s real, it’s virtuosic, it’s toe-tapping,” Bernstein says. “This is a project where all the elements are really in the right balance.”

That includes a best-of-both-worlds combination of a full, rich sound while the band stays flexible and nimble: “It has all the benefits of a large ensemble ... but it also has the quality of very in-the-moment that people would largely associate with a small group.”

Asked about the co-headliners’ respective roles, Bernstein says that he’s the bandleader while Butler is the musical leader.

“The band is built around Henry. He’s the engine, and we’re the fine bus on top of that engine,” Bernstein says. “Henry is such an incredible, special treasure.”

Butler determines the set list for each show: “Whatever Henry is in the mood to do, that’s what he does.” That said, though, one particular item from the Hot 9 repertoire is likely set for this week. Reminded that Ann Arbor is home of the University of Michigan Wolverines, Bernstein agrees that Jelly Roll Morton’s “Wolverine Blues” -- a highlight of Viper’s Drag -- will probably make an appearance in Friday’s show.

“I think ‘Wolverine Blues’ will definitely have to be played there,” Bernstein says, adding that they play a great arrangement that makes it a concert favorite anyway. “I think you’ll get a very special ‘Wolverine Blues.’”

Although both Bernstein and Butler stay busy with other projects, Bernstein expects The Hot 9 partnership to continue. Noting how easy digital recording has become, he nevertheless hopes to get the full band together in a traditional recording studio some time in the near future. “We have all these great new arrangements,” he says. “I really want to make a new record with this band.”


Bob Needham is a freelance writer; the former arts & entertainment editor of The Ann Arbor News and AnnArbor.com.


Butler, Bernstein & the Hot 9 play at 8 pm on Friday, Sept. 8, at Downtown Home & Garden/Bill’s Beer Garden, 210 S. Ashley St., Ann Arbor. All the free tickets for this event have been given out, but a waitlist for tickets donated back to UMS will begin at Downtown Home and Garden at 5:30 pm. Visit ums.org for more information.