John Boutte’s voice is a sweet caramel croon that’s as instantly recognizable as it is inimitable.
The 55-year-old New Orleans native, and U.S. Army officer turned singer can sing up-tempo jazz, like his infectious “Treme Song,” which has become his best-known original since it was used as the theme song for the HBO series “Treme.” He can use his voice for R&B foot-tappers like his homage to the fellow performers in his family, “Sisters,” and he can fit it into the folk and Americana mold for his frequent collaborations with Paul Sanchez, the former Cowboy Mouth guitarist turned singer-songwriter.
Boutte is a consummate New Orleans performer. You can depend on him showing up on stage at any of the city’s multitude of festivals, and his weekly sets at d.b.a on Frenchman Street have long been a must for locals and tourists alike.
Boutte opens for Trombone Shorty tonight at the Jazz Aspen Snowmass June Experience in his Aspen debut. The relationship between Boutte and Trombone Shorty goes back to the time when Shorty (Troy Andrews) was a skinny child prodigy, seemingly outweighed by his trombone but blowing away audiences on New Orleans stages. Boutte sang on Andrews’ first solo album, 2002’s “Trombone Shorty’s Swingin’ Gate,” recorded when Andrews was just 15.
He also brought Andrews to gigs in Michigan and Indiana when the trombone player and singer was still a kid, giving him a taste of performing on the road. Their collaborations have continued as Andrews has matured, including an Andrews guest spot on Boutte’s last album, 2012’s “All About Everything.”
Andrews has since grown up and into a rock star stage persona that, along with his dependably show-stopping performances, has made him a global favorite and a hit in Aspen at gigs including last years Jazz Aspen Labor Day Festival.
“It’s nice to be a side man for Shorty,” said Boutte, who expects to sing a half-dozen songs and then sit in with Trombone Shorty during his set with Orleans Avenue.
Boutte has a knack for making others’ music his own — performing covers that somehow aren’t derivative. He has put a jazzy or Creole soul twist on songs like Leonard Cohen’s “That’s No Way to Say Goodbye” and Allen Toussaint’s “All These Things.” Recently, he said, he’s been working on renditions of songs as diverse as Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” and George Crawford’s “The Pencil Broke (And That’s All She Wrote).”
“I might be a pretty good singer, but there are some better writers in the world, and I try to give expression to their words,” he said.
His soulful voice, over the past decade or so, has often spoken for post-Katrina New Orleans. His cover of Annie Lennox’s “Why” improbably became an anthem for the city in the aftermath of the 2005 hurricane.
“People will come up and say, ‘You wrote that?’ And I say, ‘I’m going to take the Fifth on that.’ It’s nice to be associated with some beautiful songs. I like to interpret tunes,” Boutte said.
His update of Randy Newman’s “Louisiana 1927,” performed live at the 2006 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and known informally as “Louisiana 2005,” made for one of the most powerful and cathartic experiences this writer has ever had with live music. Boutte subbed out the characters in Newman’s tale of the 1927 Mississippi River flood for those of Katrina — President Bush replacing President Coolidge, the Lower 9th Ward instead of Evangeline Parish and “this Creole’s land” replacing “this poor cracker’s land.” Delivering to a crowd of New Orleanians living in the wake of the tragedy, eight months after the floodwaters receded, with the surrounding Mid-City and Gentilly neighborhoods still a post-apocalyptic mess, Boutte voiced the city’s pain, rage and perseverance as nobody else could.
“People always seem to turn me on to tunes at the right time,” he said, explaining that a friend suggested he cover the song that spring. “I loved it. The chords were simple, the melody was so powerful. I grabbed that and it was like therapy to sing it. … I looked around and everyone was crying — the guys were crying, the kids were looking up at their parents crying. It was something.”
As for what he’ll play tonight, Boutte said that’ll be a surprise to us and maybe to him.
“I’ve been thinking about this set for six months,” he laughed. “And I still have no idea.”