Musician extraordinaire Jonathan Butler boasts a music career that spans more than four decades, including 28 album releases and countless collaborations with some of music’s biggest names.
Ahead of the release of his upcoming album Ubuntu on 28 April, I sat down with the jazz singer and guitarist over a video call to talk about the offering – a body of work that he says was inspired by his South African roots and the connectedness of humanity.
The conversation starts almost immediately as he tells me how the record came to be. “The album happened when I was on one of my annual trips to South Africa to celebrate my birthday,” the US-based musician says. “This was pre-COVID. I was lucky to have gone on safari with Marcus Miller and that’s when I spoke to him about wanting to put out new work and that I needed him to produce it.”
Miller, the famous bassist and Miles Davis collaborator, graciously agreed and the two spent the rest of trip recording the album between Cape Town and Johannesburg with a host of local musicians. Butler admits that before the production of Ubuntu, he was unsure of what he wanted to say or if he had it in him to do another record at all.
“Prior to making the record, I was in a very negative space musically. I didn’t know what I was going to do. In hindsight, I was in South Africa searching for me, searching for Jonathan Butler”.
There’s a vulnerability and honesty about how Butler communicates personal aspects of his life, even as someone who has amassed success during a long career in a capricious industry that is quick to move on to the next hot thing.
When I ask him about the themes on the new offering, Butler starts with ‘When Love Comes In’, which he says talks about the COVID-19 pandemic and the loss of life. ‘Our Voices Matter’ speaks about the George Floyd police killing, which gave birth to BLM movement. But it is mainly when he elaborates on the song ‘Coming Home’ that you get a sense of where Butler’s heart is as an artist. “I’m always just a boy who is coming home,” he says.
Ubuntu also features a remake of Stevie Wonders classic ‘Superwoman’, on which the legendary American musician plays harmonica. If you listen carefully to the female vocals on the track, you’ll hear the voice of South African gospel powerhouse Ntokozo Mbambo, whose inclusion on the album happened by chance.
“We were in a Johannesburg studio and she was recording at another studio on the same premises,” Butler says. “She came over to where we were and Marcus Miller asked her to jump in the booth to record a chant-like phrase on the song.” An initially reluctant Mbambo eventually relented and her contribution is something that Butlers says brought a “signature African magic” to ‘Superwoman’.
What has always intrigued me about Butler is his ability to effortlessly straddle between genres like jazz, pop, gospel and R&B without being boxed in. When I ask him if this is intentional, he says, “I look at my whole creative life as a well and so whatever music I’m making comes from the same well.”
Butler also speaks about putting himself first in the creative process. “As an artist, you must enjoy the music you’re making before you offer it to an audience. Just like if I’m cooking a dish, I have to love the dish before I serve it to you. You cannot be an artist and only think about what the market needs.”
He cautions that Ubuntu is not an album that was made with commercial appeal in mind (although it does tick that box, regardless of the intention). He says it was the album’s recording process that rekindled his love for music making. “I was like a kid again, I was enjoying playing guitar again,” he says with discernible joy in his voice, making one believe that this album is truly a labour of love.
As we wrap up the interview, I take the opportunity to ask what Butler is listening to at the moment, and he gives me a long list of local and international favourites, showing me that even great artists are always music fans first.
“I love Roberta Flack, Luther Vandross, Herbie Hancock, Moonchild and Afrotraction. I am always downloading music.” When I ask Butler what keeps him going, it is this response that resonates with me the most: “The world needs messengers, prophets and teachers, and music has the power to carry many messages. What keeps me going is the fact that every day I hear a word and I want to share that word with people. It is my responsibility.”
It dawns on me how fortunate we are that Butler continues to listen to those messages and brings them to pass through song.
Listen to and buy Ubuntu here.