Recording its latest album, Camden Session, premiering exclusively below, at Mark Ronson’s Zelig studio in England let Butcher Brown do what it does best — and try some fresh things that saxophonist Marcus Tenney predicts will be a template for the group’s future work.
Most of the material on the set, which comes out Oct. 12 on Gearbox Records, was developed and road-tested by the time the jazz quintet from Richmond, Va., arrived at Zelig to make its seventh release. “We just wanted to make sure it sounded like all the other (albums),” Tenney tells Billboard, “a real collective sound, just fluid and operating off our abilities as musicians and off our ears, what we’re hearing as we play.” But the track “Camden Square,” a brisk seven minutes highlighting each of the musicians, was a new adventure for the crew, with keyboardist and group leader Devonne Harris, who’s also been touring with Jack White, writing and presenting the song in the studio — throwing down a creative gauntlet since the set was being recorded direct to disc.
“I’m sure he had ideas of what he wanted to be, but we all just started playing and he directed us in a certain way,” Tenney recalls. “I think we all have gotten our skills to a place where we can be confident we’ll come up with something he’ll be happy with. We really liked the way it went.” The track, Tenney adds, also employs more production technique in terms of microphone placement and other techniques. And that’s whetted the group’s appetite to go even further into the studio realm on future recordings.
“Up to now we’ve been creating records that were more or less live performance recordings — which is great, ’cause we love playing live,” Tenney explains. “But there are other dimensions to studio work that we want to experiment with. The challenge for us now is to find a way to not rely just on our skills so much and incorporate more of a studio and production approach — but still honestly represent who we are and what we sound like.”
Butcher Brown has already embarked on that back home in Richmond, in fact. “We went home and worked on a bunch of music that will probably be out next year, in the production style,” Tenney says. “We’re thinking about things more — less about the live performance like a jazz musician would and more about how to take different pieces and put them together and really create something rather than just playing it. We want to make it more of a piece of art and less of just playing something and throwing it out and worrying about it after the fact. It’s a real departure from what we’ve done to this point. We want to make sure we come up with something different.”
But Tenney promises there will be no wholesale reinvention of Butcher Brown, which is currently touring with Kamasi Washington. “Y’know, as soon as we get together we just start making music, cracking jokes. It’s extremely interactive when we’re in close proximity to each other,” Tenney notes. “The playing is locked in. But in order to move forward we have to learn as individuals to discuss more and lace that into the fabric of whatever we’re doing. So even when we do go back to performing in a live situation we’ll still bring that production mentality to it so it will really influence whatever we do in the future.”