To many audiences, Jonathan Butler was the 1980s and 1990s equivalent of George Benson, with a guitar and vocal follow-through that blended essentials of jazz, pop and R&B. To others, his music spoke in more spiritual terms through Christian songs of praise. Then, if you perused his personal history and soaked in the sounds of his latest album, “Free,” Butler came across as a global music ambassador with a fondness for sharing his South African heritage.
As he heads to Lexington this weekend to share the stage with saxophonist and longtime pal Gerald Albright for the concluding night of the Lexus Smooth Jazz Festival, those various profiles fold into a very singular artist. With a recording career that has spanned more than three decades, Butler would rather follow his artistic heart than adhere to an expected trend.
“You speak to your philosophy, your belief and your faith,” Butler said. “The labels, the radio stations — let them follow you. I think that’s how it should be. Once we start following the radio and these different trends that are telling us what to do, we tend to limit ourselves.
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“When you make time for music, you just have to be patient. You have to let the music find its place in people’s lives and minds and then let it resonate. My whole focus for an album like ‘Free’ was to reach not only people in the Christian community. We all suffer so much in life, so I think there is an important message that this album carries about being encouraged and about turning a new page in life through change. A lot of the songs talk about moving on. These are stories about what I’ve personally gone through. It’s about growing with people. To me that’s pretty much how I make music. I’ve never been tied to formulas. I’ve always tried to reinvent and recreate, to find new ways to make music and be creative.”
The youngest in a Capetown family of 13 children, Butler began singing at age 7 and was recording before his teens. By the time he released his self-titled major label debut album for Jive Records in 1986, Butler had relocated to London, where he stayed for the next 17 years. But his South African roots remain vital to this day, as shown on the jubilant “Sing Africa,” one of the highlight songs from “Free.”
“It’s a celebration,” Butler said of the tune. “I wrote ‘Sing Africa’ so many years ago. It’s a song I had in my archives for a very long time. I wanted to celebrate South Africa from a gospel perspective. There is gospel, meaning American gospel, and then there is South African gospel. It really tells you this art is from South Africa. It’s the kind of praise and worship style they deal with in South Africa.
Once we start following the radio and these different trends that are telling us what to do, we tend to limit ourselves.
“It is a different South Africa today. It’s a very, very different country. It’s had 20 years of democracy, but before that it was a police state run by the white minority. People died for independence and freedom and democracy. But we still have such a long way to go. I’m very upset about the present political climate in South Africa. But having said that, the country as a whole — its beauty, its vision, its spirit, its people — is very, very strong.”
Now based in Los Angeles, Butler has also watched the nature of the music business change since songs like the R&B inclined “Lies” and the jazz-directed instrumental “Going Home” earned him Grammy nominations in the late 1980s. More than that, though, has been the steady evolution of his own musical voice and the myriad inspirations that fuel it.
“There was a quote from a long time ago by Thelonious Monk. He said, ‘It takes a long time to play you.’ So rather than let the radio follow you, you follow the radio. I think that’s very, very wise. Even if takes 20 or 25 years, people will eventually understand that this is what you are all about, this is what your real heart is saying.
“I’m not through yet, either — absolutely not. I don’t think there is such a thing a stopping something like this. When I hear people mention the word ‘retire,’ I look at them very strangely.”
If you go
Lexus Smooth Jazz Fest
Who: Gerald Albright and Jonathan Butler
When: 7:30 p.m. Aug. 13
Where: Kentucky Horse Park Campground, 4089 Iron Works Parkway
Tickets: $25, $75
Additional event: 5 One Way Jazz Band, 8 p.m. Aug. 12, Coldstream Ballroom, Embassy Suites, 1801 Newtown Pike. $25 advance, $30 day of show.