Thirteen Dances by Johnny Butler: A step too far?

Thirteen Dances by Johnny Butler: A step too far?

Johnny Butler’s Thirteen Dances, due to be released on 12th March, is an explorative and emotive creation of alt-jazz that is unlike anything else out there.

Rating: 3.5/5

Brooklyn-born Butler, for those not in the know, is a very highly regarded, Grammy award-winning saxophonist. He has written and collaborated with the likes of Beyonce, Stevie Wonder and Donald Fagen of Steely Dan. His portfolio of music has won him awards and seen him sell out venues. Having already established a name for himself, you wouldn’t be laughed at for thinking this new album would be rich with collaborators and full of life. But on the first listen, I couldn’t place it. And I’m still not quite sure what the takeaway meaning and idea behind the album is.

How does it compare to Butler’s earlier work?

I decided to delve into the back catalogue of Butler’s previous works to see if this was a pattern. I started off with HyperViolet, an album Butler released in 2017. A very solid album, it featured a similar alt-jazz electronic sound but richer. The songs on this album seemed to come to life, rich with deeper tones and more presence than Thirteen Dances. The collaborations made this album pop and showed Butler delving into small pockets of other genres. It was quite a good listen, and more in line with my expectations of Thirteen Dances.

But Thirteen Dances turned out to be a complete curveball. One of the best interpretations I have seen of the album is through its artwork.  Artist MASATO does a fantastic job at conveying the imagery and emotions the album conjures up. It uses a huge black and white mess of mechanical objects and a beady eye staring straight out of the album cover.


The first half of Thirteen Dances

The first song on the album, titled Little Creek, is a huge and sprawling soundscape that has a purely industrial and mechanical feel to it. It reminded me instantly of Boards of Canada, a downtempo, electronic duo that released some equally as unique tracks. In my opinion, the first track sets the overarching theme for the first half of the album.

The second track, I Heart NY, is much like the first and continues this sprawling and menacing sound of the sax and electronic “gizmos”. At times it sounds like the sax is trying to escape from this unsettling blanket of electronic noise. But for the most part it doesn’t, and at times I wanted the beautiful but lonely saxophone to be stripped of the electronic netting it carries so heavily.

I struggled to see Butler’s vision within the first half of this album. However, I can imagine these oppressively gloomy tracks, with their echoic saxophone melodies, are meant to conjure up many images. They may even induce thoughts of the past and even fleeting memories with forgotten people. But this isn’t something I resonated with here. I am genuinely disappointed that I cannot see the album in a different light, because it is a masterclass in production. To give credit to Butler, the chaotic and uncomfortable sounds he produces from his saxophone and a range of other electronic “gizmos” blend effortlessly into one another as the album goes on, and it certainly knows its own presence as an album.

The beauty in the second half

The first track I enjoyed listening to on the album was track ten, titled Seventeen. This was the first track that got rid of the electronic “fuzz” for the most part. Instead, it focused back on Butler’s emotional and riveting sax playing. The track features beautiful melancholic tones and vaguely reminded me of Miles Davis’ Concierto de Aranjuez. This is the first track from one of my favourite and possibly one of the best albums ever conceived, Sketches of Spain. It was this pure form of sax playing that I had wanted to hear in the first half of the album, and to receive it in the beautifully fragile package that Seventeen offered was a great relief.

The next track Diversion once again delves into the electronic fuzz. It’s toned back here slightly, and he allows more of the saxophone to come forward. The track features some nice glissando patches and showcases some of his immense talent. But ultimately it’s still too much of an uncomfortable sound for me to really understand the meaning of it.

The power of silence

The last two tracks happen to be my favourites on the album. The penultimate track, Magical Evergreen, is a fantastic and stark contrast to the rest of the album. For the first time, it features a piano and no sax. There are elements of electronic noise that Butler keeps tucked away in the background. However, they are still just present enough to give the track that mechanical and gloomier sound. The piano itself is fleeting in nature with staccato chords jotted throughout. There are also some wonderful bars that seem to give the silence within the track more of a heavy presence.

It then flows smoothly into the ultimate track through Butler’s great use of silence, and into a wonderful solo piece much like the track Seventeen. Again, the track reminds me of the Miles Davis epic. Butler plays some beautifully muted notes and plays some hauntingly beautiful notes into a completely desolate backdrop. It is almost as if the saxophone, by its end, has stripped itself of the electronic fuzz and revealed its own beauty.

Final thoughts

In essence, I think I can understand Butler’s approach to this album. However, the majority of the tracks unfortunately did not grip me. I was ultimately left wanting less noise and more of the pure instrumental sounds. The places where I did get to see the pure sounds of the sax and the piano were my highlights. They provided a breath of fresh air from the other, more niche sounds of the album. This album is definitely unconventional, so give it a listen with an open mind and see if you draw the same conclusions.

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