CD Review of Live in South Africa by Jonathan Butler
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Jonathan Butler:
Live in South Africa

Reviewed by Jeff Giles


or a time in the late ‘80s, Butler seemed poised for smooth jazz god status – on Quiet Storm stations with long memories, you can still occasionally hear his 1987 hit “Lies” – but his sales never quite caught up with his potential, and by the mid ‘90s, he was adrift in the indie seas. If losing his deal with Jive didn’t kill his career Stateside, then signing one with the short-lived multimedia N2K label did – but overseas (particularly in his native South Africa, hence this set’s title), he still enjoys a higher profile.

Butler was a South African teen idol in the ‘70s – his first single won the equivalent of a Grammy, no small feat in the age of apartheid – so releasing this was a bit of a no-brainer for Butler’s second release with Rendezvous, the indie jazz label co-owned by Dave Koz. Even as his sales have dwindled, Butler’s releases have continued to garner positive reviews; with the right kind of buzz, it wouldn’t be out of the question for his star to rise again in America – and if anything is going to grab attention at this stage of his career, it’s a homecoming concert in Capetown, bundled with a DVD of the performance and a pair of documentaries.

It’s the documentaries that tell the most interesting story here – you might not guess it from listening to his songs, but Butler’s music was a source of inspiration for anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, among them Ahmed Kathrada, who meets up with Butler at the prison-turned-museum Robben Island for an emotional reunion. Those scenes – and the footage of Butler returning to Capetown – lend depth and weight to what might otherwise seem like a fairly unexceptional collection of smooth jazz songs.

It’s the songs that are always Butler’s biggest problem, really – although he’s a phenomenal instrumentalist and has been gifted with an elastic voice that brushes up against Stevie Wonder territory, Butler also has Wonder’s weakness for limp, gooey ballads that have a tendency to smother any heat or momentum his albums generate. It’s a cruel irony that a vocalist this talented tends to put his best foot forward on his instrumental tracks, but it’s true, and that remains the case here – songs such as “Do You Love Me?” will prove forbidding territory for all but the most rock-allergic listeners.

Thankfully, Butler still manages to show a few teeth every now and again, gaining traction with more up-tempo numbers (such as “Lies,” which offers a pleasant update on the 20-year-old hit) and the instrumentals, which unfailingly highlight his impressive guitar chops. The concert footage adds a new dimension, too – unlike many other CD/DVD packages, it’s clear a lot of time and effort went into the mixing and editing of the performance. Rather than simply a straight visual retelling of the CD, it’s something Butler fans will want to watch repeatedly. It may not win him any new converts, but for $15, the faithful will be hard-pressed to ask for more.

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