Jazz Fest act Butcher Brown knows the spot ‘where jazz and rap dovetail’

Butcher Brown will perform at the Atlanta Jazz Festival at 5 p.m. Saturday, May 25, in Piedmont Park.

Credit: Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff

Credit: Photo by Jacob Blickenstaff

Butcher Brown will perform at the Atlanta Jazz Festival at 5 p.m. Saturday, May 25, in Piedmont Park.

This story was originally published by ArtsATL.

Audiophiles have been lamenting that jazz — the ever-evolving sound that has offered its own soundtrack to the changing tides of modern culture — has been relegated to fading cult popularity over the last two decades. So where are the driving forces keeping the genre fresh in a bid for mainstream relevance?

Enter Butcher Brown. The Richmond, Virginia, quintet has soared in popularity in recent years, owing in large part to appearances on NPR’s “Tiny Desk Concerts,” AI animated music videos and a thriving internet presence. The group will be performing in Piedmont Park at 5 p.m. May 25 during the Atlanta Jazz Festival.

At the heart of its burgeoning success is a keen awareness of the fundamental nature of jazz and its place in the development of music. The ensemble’s latest full-length release — 2023′s “Solar Music” — continues its smooth melding of acoustic and electric instruments as it pushes forward on the vanguard of modern jazz.

“Jazz is a language, similar to Latin,” says Marcus “Tennishu” Tenney, Butcher Brown’s vocalist-trumpeter-saxophonist, of the genre’s role in the evolution of contemporary music. His insight cuts to the core of jazz’s evolving nature. Just as Latin is the basis for all the romance languages, so jazz has served as the backbone of the modern popular song form.

“The evolution of jazz has to be looked at [in the context of] the evolution of humans because it’s a social music,” he continues, laying out a vision of the jazz ensemble as a social event characterized by gentle, familiar rapport and mutual respect.

That humanity is apparent in Butcher Brown’s music. Tenney is joined by bassist Andrew Randazzo, guitarist Morgan Burrs, percussionist Corey Fonville and multi-instrumentalist DJ Harrison for a sound that hits a sweet spot between the mid-1970s fusion of “Aja”-era Steely Dan and modern hip-hop stylings that feature a robust vocabulary from jazz’s many stylistic languages sprinkled throughout.

“Hip-hop is a little bit different,” says Tenney of the band’s rap component. “Jazz is the music, rap is the movies. Rap provides the imaginative narrative that can steer your thinking. Jazz gives you the sounds and the colors, and you can run wild with your imagination. In rap, the interpretation is limited to what the person says. That changes the dynamic.”

Lyrical content might constrain the nature of the music to a fixed meaning, but Tenney says that it opens up another array of opportunities to the artist. “In music, you have 15 different notes and 12 different pitches. In rap music, you have any word that’s pronounceable. You have infinite connectivity through that. That’s where jazz and rap dovetail.”

And dovetail they do. The group’s most recent single, “Down With the King,” lays aggressive hip-hop beats and an intoxicating lyrical flow alongside ambient electronics and swaggering horns.

It’s the natural evolution from songs such as “I Can Say to You,” the standout track from “Solar Music,” that features guest vocals by Vanisha Gould — a chilled-out, almost whispered vocal refrain seeps in and out of ethereal organ washes and mellow funk grooves. Through it all, the music underscores lyrics that yearn for a human connection and personal authenticity in a surreal and confusing world.

Those social underpinnings make Butcher Brown an appealing force, but Tenney understands the realities of making and promoting such music in an increasingly isolated and paranoid age.

For him, the key to breaking through those barriers and educating the next generation is not just in musical proficiency but in their listening capacity. “Students should learn how to listen to the opposite of what they like. If you’ve already developed a love of music, then your job is to go out and scout what’s out there.”

That tenet is at the core of the 2024 Atlanta Jazz Festival (Saturday-Monday, May 25-27 in Piedmont Park). Rather than rely on legacy artists and the standards of yesteryear, the roster boasts the Afro-Caribbean world beat stylings of Okan, the chops and heavy intricacies of New Jazz Underground and the acoustic guitar singer-songwriter sensibilities of Kels. It’s a diverse roster of boundary pushers with the most well-known name on the bill showing up in the form of rap god turned esoteric flute maven André 3000.

Today’s pop culture trends are amorphous and difficult to pin down. Diversity becomes the order of the day. Butcher Brown is happy to fill that order and a whole lot more.


Butcher Brown at Atlanta Jazz Festival

5 p.m. Saturday, May 25. Piedmont Park in Midtown Atlanta. Free. For the full schedule: atljazzfest.com


Jordan Owen began writing about music professionally at the age of 16 in Oxford, Mississippi. A 2006 graduate of the Berklee College of Music, he is a professional guitarist, bandleader and composer. He is currently the lead guitarist for the jazz group Other Strangers, the power metal band Axis of Empires and the melodic death/thrash metal band Century Spawn.

ArtsATL logo

Credit: ArtsATL

icon to expand image

Credit: ArtsATL


ArtsATL (artsatl.org) is a nonprofit organization that plays a critical role in educating and informing audiences about metro Atlanta’s arts and culture. ArtsATL, founded in 2009, helps build a sustainable arts community contributing to the economic and cultural health of the city.

If you have any questions about this partnership or others, please contact Senior Manager of Partnerships Nicole Williams at nicole.williams@ajc.com.