Gerry Gibbs rolled around on the floor of Carmen’s de la Calle Café with Cosmo, the reliably exuberant, tail-wagging boxer belonging to Bett Butler and her bass-playing husband, Joël Dilley. The lanky, famously sardonic Gibbs, a stellar jazz drummer known by his friends as “The Thrasher,” grinned at his canine friend and announced, “You know, you’re an angel in a dog suit.”
That’s the way songs are conceived, in idle, offhand moments of foolishness when everyone drops their self-consciousness just long enough to let ideas emerge.
Butler was at Carmen’s with Gibbs and Dilley over the 2005 Thanksgiving weekend, attempting to cut tracks for her third album. The session didn’t pan out, because Butler’s songs required additional honing, but Gibbs’s horseplay with Cosmo provided Butler with the title of the most charming track on her new album, Myths & Fables.
“Angel in a Dog Suit” is a three-minute be-bop tour of Cosmo’s South Alamo neighborhood haunts, with a giddy, Coltrane-esque horn arrangement and a breakneck swing that simulates the dog’s prancing gait. Butler fills in the picture with images of Cosmo heading over to Tito’s for corn tortillas and China Latina for a fortune cookie: “The trash cans on the corner/ hold polka dots and moonbeams/ and every tree he passes holds the scent of someone new.”
“That song is about the neighborhood,” Butler says. “He’s a neighborhood character, and he spends a lot of time in the studio.”
Cosmo may even turn up at Jump-Start
Theater on November 3 for Butler’s CD-release party, the exclamation point on a personally trying but artistically promising year for the singer-pianist. She has cared for her ailing mother and, along with Dilley, battled persistent water leaks at Mandala Music Production, their recording studio. She has also received creative encouragement from a first-place award in the jazz category of the International Songwriting Competition (for the torchy ballad “When Love Has Left the Room”) and from the promotional efforts of Amanda Case, a Seattle agent who represents Ian Moore, and admires the work of Dilley and Butler.
With her short coif, thin frame, and enigmatic features, Butler suggests a darker-haired version of performance artist Laurie Anderson. Though their musical visions are miles apart, they share a studied theatricality.
Butler studied drama for a spell at Trinity University, before deciding that the program wasn’t for her. “The theater department at that time was very much built around a certain method and it was that school of acting where you’d do a lot of imaginative exercises,” she recalls. “At the time, the way I approached acting was just to go in and pretend. I didn’t really want to be on the floor acting like I was a tomato.”
Nonetheless, Butler continues to apply an actor’s mindset to her vocal performances, routinely changing the timbre of her voice to suit the character she’s playing. In the case of “When Love Has Left the Room,” she convincingly plays a burned-out, burned-by-love drunk, hiding in the dark and “not too steady on my feet,” like a female Charles Bukowski. With the bluesy “It Ain’t Over ’til It’s Over,” she’s a modern-day Bessie Smith, taunting her man to get the job done in the bedroom. The album’s most haunting track, “Secrets,” finds her playing the role of empathetic narrator, telling the story of a rural family that kept a father’s suicide a secret for nearly two generations. In conversation, Butler hesitates to elaborate on the specifics, but reveals that it is a verbatim account of a story that happened in her family.
“It’s not really so important that it’s about my family,” she says. “I think every person has that sort of story, maybe not those particulars, but that’s a very universal story that occurs in many families.
“It’s those unspoken things that have so much power, and the fact that they’re unspoken gives them that power. There’s a tradition in African mysticism that says once you name something, it no longer has power over you.”
A Houston native whose parents collected a wide range of music, Butler watched as her older sister Janis took piano lessons, and picked up some boogie-woogie basics while still a toddler. Her first public performance, at a Mexico City nightclub at the age of 4, earned her big applause. Being compelled to take lessons, however, from the age of 7 until she completed high school, resulted in some bitter rows around the house.
“The music teachers we had were usually the neighborhood ladies or the church ladies, and a lot of them were not the hippest musicians in the world,” she says with a big laugh. “What was fun to me was playing by ear. I didn’t have a lot of patience with reading music. I faked it all the time. I could get away with it. That’s probably why I became a jazz musician. Being able to go beyond what’s on the printed page, that was what I always veered towards.”
A textbook demonstration of that skill comes with Butler’s new version of the Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart standard, “I Wish I Were in Love Again.” A dizzying grocery list of love’s miseries, the song hints that tension and conflict beats dull solitude every time. Butler brings the irony home with a wonderful section in which she sings the song’s lyrics to the tune of “I Got Rhythm,” one of pop’s ultimate testaments to love. Richard Oppenheim (alto sax) and Cecil Carter (trumpet) lock into a wild horn riff while Dilley holds the runaway tempo together with his low-end mastery.
Dilley co-produced Myths & Fables with an intuitive understanding of Butler’s vision, keeping things remarkably spare and allowing every fresh element (such as tbow Gonzales’s African percussion on “For Gabriele”) to leap out of the mix.
“Joël is a wonderful producer because he produces very organically,” Butler says. “He never forces anything on a song. He really listens well and takes it where it wants to go. I’ve seen so many situations where a producer will have a preconceived idea and try to make things fit into that idea. He doesn’t work that way.” •
Bett Butler: CD Release Party
7:30pm Sat, Nov 3
108 Blue Star