Tough and Tender
By LARRY BLUMENFELD
As the first season of the HBO series "Treme" was ending in 2010, fictional musician and DJ Davis McAlary implored his girlfriend not to leave New Orleans. He asked for 24 hours to make his case, and arrived at her door the next morning with a plate of beignets and a diminutive, bronze-skinned singer named John Boutté.
It didn't work. The girlfriend headed off to New York. But the plan was sound, the cameo role logical. When Mr. Boutté (pronounced boo-TAY) sang an a cappella version of Sam Cooke's "Bring It on Home to Me" on that front porch, for a moment we thought—it looked like she thought—she just might stay. In a city full of musical seductions, none can persuade quite like Mr. Boutté's voice.
Such appeal packed listeners four-deep in the jazz tent's aisles during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in May. (No doubt, some were drawn by the fact that Mr. Boutté composed and sang "Treme Song," the HBO show's opening theme.) Wearing a broad-brimmed hat and shaking a tambourine, Mr. Boutté brought listeners to their feet with the rollicking blues tune "All Around the World." He had them in hushed silence after paring down his seven-piece band to flute, guitar and bass for "All About Everything," an English translation of a Brazilian song. As the title track of a new CD on his own Boutteworks label, that song forms the album's emotional center and musical high point. It was every bit as arresting in live performance. The purity of Mr. Boutté's tone and his lack of pretense lent weight to each word, his facial features contorting to craft each phrase as precisely as a carpenter shaping a piece of wood. A day later, he was onstage at the festival's gospel tent, tambourine in hand, this time mostly in dutiful support for "Boutté Family Sunday Praise," which included two of his sisters, three nieces, and one cousin.
"When I was a kid, we all sang," Mr. Boutté said in the living room of his Creole cottage, next door to the modest brick house built by his father and grandfather, in which his mother, Gloria, still lives. The eighth of 10 children, Mr. Boutté, now 53, sang in church and played first-chair trumpet in public schools known for music programs. His Seventh Ward neighborhood was filled with traditional-jazz heroes. Drummer Paul Barbarin threw backyard parties; banjoist Danny Barker dispensed musical tips. "Most of the local musicians held other jobs," Mr. Boutté said. "So I figured I needed a profession." After attending Xavier University on an ROTC scholarship and serving in the Army, he worked as a bank account supervisor. But a jam session with Stevie Wonder in 1986—a chance encounter—changed all that. "Before Stevie left," Mr. Boutté said, "he told me I had my own signature as a singer. He said, 'You can do this.' I believed him." Mr. Boutté quit his job the next morning. Soon after, his older sister Lillian, who had starred in the musical "One Mo' Time," brought him on a European tour. Mr. Boutté drove the band bus, and began singing backup and cameo vocals. "It became clear that John's talent required its own spotlight," Lillian recalled. By the early 1990s he was leading his own bands in New Orleans.
At home last month, Mr. Boutté picked up the notebook on which he'd jotted down lyrics in 1993—"watchin' people sashay / past my steps / by my porch / in front of my door"—for what became "Treme Song." "I was on my porch drinking coffee, and a jazz funeral went by," he said. "I just wrote what I saw. Then I set it to a simple bass line and New Orleans clave. Basic stuff." He thought the tune trifling, eventually recording it for his 2003 CD, "Jambalaya."
Long before HBO brought that song to wider attention, Mr. Boutté had attracted a loyal following. Locals sat on the floor, like pious churchgoers, during his weekly gig at the DBA club on Frenchmen Street. After the 2005 flood, these performances grew cathartic. He'd drop timely, pointed references into Randy Newman's "Louisiana, 1927," transform Annie Lennox's "Why" from lover's inquisition to social-justice cry.
Mr. Boutté can express nuanced ideas while sounding plainspoken within a song. On the new CD, this quality comes across best through "War Is All Over," a previously unrecorded song from hometown hero Allen Toussaint, with lyrics about "respect for those who disagree." Mr. Toussaint has long admired Mr. Boutté. "John's voice is just so darn good that he can sing it relatively straight," he said. "John doesn't out-sing the song with a lot of licks—he can, but he doesn't have to and he doesn't want to."
Blake Leyh, who produced "All About Everything," was drawn to Mr. Boutté while working as music supervisor for "Treme." "Whenever I came across anything that John recorded, it created an immediate emotional connection," he said. "I found myself stopping what I was doing, just being moved." Beyond the Toussaint composition, the CD boasts another coup: a previously unreleased Dave Bartholomew tune, "The Grass Is Greener," which features solos from two notable New Orleans musicians, trumpeter James Andrews and his younger brother Troy (aka "Trombone Shorty"). The album is studded with distinguished local players, including sousaphonists Kirk Joseph and Matt Perrine. That's fitting. Mr. Boutté is of this scene, with power to match its boldest players. Yet he conveys something distinct, even on oft-covered tunes such as Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" and Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." It's a blend of tough and tender that owes to no one place and would be rare anywhere.
Mr. Blumenfeld writes about jazz for the Journal.