Here’s what you don’t expect to hear on a recording where the drummer is the leader: drums that don’t take the lead.
Granted, that statement is loaded with caveats. Keith Butler’s trio on his mellow but enjoyable debut Greener Grasses features a guitar-bass-drum lineup, and in such situations the guitar is usually the front person by default. Moreover, this particular six-stringer—D.C. player Nelson Dougherty—brings an awful lot of intricacy and color to bear. (So does bassist Steve Arnold, who rounds out the trio.) Even so, we expect the drummer to assume prominence on their own albums. Yet Butler, who also composed the album’s six tunes, really doesn’t. Even when flexing his own considerable chops (as on “What’s in a Waltz”), he stays resolutely behind his bandmates.
This, believe it or not, is Butler showing us who he is. Before playing jazz, the North Carolina native had immersed himself in Appalachian folk music tradition(s), in which the beat is more often felt than heard. His jazz influences also align with what we hear on Greener Grasses—he name-checks bassist Charlie Haden and guitarists Bill Frisell and Jakob Bro, all of them known for their rural American folk music inspirations—and none of them drummers. But they did all work with Paul Motian, another of Butler’s stated influences and a drummer-composer who emphasized the latter half of that compound.
There’s a distinctly Motian-esque flavor to some of the compositions. In particular, “What’s in a Waltz” and the soft-toned closer “Family” employ the late drummer’s brand of rich lyricism and spacious guitar resonances. On “Yeah, but,” he even recalls Motian’s love of guitar-and-tenor-saxophone unisons, bringing in sax man Andrew Frankhouse to work alongside Dougherty.
Just as this is not a typical drummer’s album, though, it is not a simple Paul Motian pastiche. “Yeah, but” puts Frankhouse and Dougherty into a unique context, articulating melody and improvised statements with a softness that allows the drummer to slip in malleted whispers. The saxophonist turns up the juice on the tune’s second half, and if Butler adds a little more force to his work it’s still carefully contained.
On the opening “Longbridge,” the drummer is a constant presence, this time with sticks, even if he doesn’t muscle up to the front. He gives the shape and pacing first to Dougherty’s solo, then to Arnold’s (on which he’s even quieter). If the drums hit an unexpected snare accent, the guitar echoes it closely; if Butler plays a soft spang-a-lang vamp on the cymbals, Arnold imitates it. The closest Butler comes to overt command is on the title track—he softly plays brushes, dominance simply through constancy in the face of Dougherty and Arnold’s sparsity.
For some musicians, this kind of preeminence via subtlety would be a subversive touch. For Butler it’s simply leadership: Here is an understated framework, now fill it with something beautiful.