John Boutte hadn’t recorded a new album in a few years, but the passing of time and personal tragedies haven’t diminished his vision.

New Orleans must be heaven because the city is filled with the voices of angels. The leader of this choir would probably be the great John Boutte, a truly magnificent jazz, R&B, and gospel singer whose intimate performances at the d.b.a. club on Frenchman Street are the stuff of legend.

Boutte is also well known for his spectacular moments at Jazz Fest as part of the Gospel Traditions. Most notably for his historic show at the Jazz Tent in 2006, John voiced the anguish of the city when the waters of Katrina rose to the rooftops in a chilling interpretation of the Randy Newman classic "Louisiana."

Boutte also played a key role in the theatrical production “Nine Lives,” a song cycle written by Paul Sanchez and Colman DeKay based on Dan Baum's story of nine New Orleanians who lived through hurricanes Betsy (1965) and Katrina (2005).

Boutte is best known outside New Orleans for his contributions to the HBO series “Treme,” which used his composition "Treme Song" as its theme song. Boutte has released numerous albums and written signature New Orleans songs like "At the Foot of Canal Street" and "Good Neighbor."

His ability to capture the spirit of the city in his writing comes from a lifetime of hanging out with members of his musical family and soaking up all of the deep culture of New Orleans.

You can't rush beauty

Boutte was finishing work on a new album when we talked. The freewheeling conversation went from joy to sorrow in the blink of an eye as he alternately laughed and cried while relating his experiences.

"I didn't realize I hadn't had a record in almost seven years," he admitted. "Time flies. I just didn't have time to record anything. I didn't do any originals. I did songs that I liked. I wanted to own the masters. I went in to Esplanade Studios with a trio, like Nat King Cole's trio – piano, bass and guitar. And I did that without horns because I didn't want any distractions from my voice. I love the feel, the texture of it."

Boutte chose some of his favorite material from over the years for his new album.

"I picked one obscure song from Jabbo Smith, an old trumpet player from the 1920s, called 'Must Be Right Can't Be Wrong.' I swang it out, with the band. The lyrics are beautiful. I've got an Indian tune, I've got 'Indian Red' on there.

“I did a few different things, 'Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?' I did that at the end of the ‘Treme’ HBO series,” he continued. “I've always done that song live, and WWOZ did a great studio recording of it. I did 'Nature Boy,' tipping my hat to Nat King Cole.”

I'm calling the record ‘A Well Tempered Boutte.’ I'll tell you how I came to that conclusion. When we were rehearsing, I realized that every song was in a different key. The piano player said 'Call it The Well Tempered Boutte,' and I thought 'That's it!'"

But a loss to his musical family almost derailed the project.

“My guitar player, Todd Duke, passed at the end of January. He was my guitar player for 20 years."

Duke's playing on the record is superb, a gorgeous swan song of a performance that cradles Boutte's voice lovingly throughout. Boutte was overcome with emotion as he talked about his friend and bandmate.

"I can hardly get through… (he started choking up)... I can hardly get through the mixes. He played so beautifully. And he knew… the sickness just took him. A young man. I was a wreck... Give me one minute…”

We sat in silence while he composed himself.

"It was rough. I didn't want to change my configuration, and I didn't want to throw him out because he was sick. There were difficulties. Some days he was well, some days he wasn't. But he always did his best. I love this quote from him, he said, 'You can't rush beauty.'

Depending on the Music

Boutte has always been active in New Orleans cultural life, and he took time out from the recording process to celebrate Mardi Gras.

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"I actually went to Krewe du Vieux the other day," he said. "It was absolutely great. It's disrespectful and decadent, what Mardi Gras is supposed to be. Tellin' the truth. Time to take a few masks off. You think you're putting a mask on, actually you're taking a mask off.

“But I'm not living in New Orleans now. I'm across the lake in Lacombe. I'm 60 years old and I love the quiet now. I love the nature, the air quality, the rhythm of the cicadas. I love to hear the birds singing in my backyard every morning. I have 29 acres around me and a little bitty house, 800 square feet, and an artesian well so I have my own water. If I put up solar panels I'd be totally off the grid. There's 19 acres of pristine hardwood forest, Louisiana pine wood, hickory, live oak, wild magnolias. I love it out here, it's been so good for me.

“There's a small golf course – three and a half acres,” he continued. “My father was an excellent golfer. Two things he did on weekends, he fished and he golfed. He would put golf on the TV and say to me, 'See those people on the course? The only black people are carrying the bags. That's gonna change.' And I thought 'Yeah, I ain't carrying nobody's bags'."

Like many New Orleans musicians, Boutte grew up in a musical household. His older sister, Lillian, took him on his first tour of Europe as part of her band. Lillian, now suffering from Alzheimer's, can no longer sing.

"I wanted to say about Lillian – she's safe and loved and she's staying with my sister Lynette and my dear angel niece, Tanya. Alzheimer's is just such a horrible disease. It's just horrible to see her in that position because she was a queen. I always see her on stage wowing people with so much confidence and such a powerful voice and presence. She can't sing, she can't communicate anymore. You lose all that.

“I'm very conscientious about getting my exercise, eating, and trying to stay healthy cause you never know what life has in store for you. Life ain't easy. It's filled with a lot of joy, but the pain is right there. Right after you're finished laughing the tears are right at the back of your eyes waiting to come out.

"Sometimes she gets a smile,” he continued. “My oldest brother died last year. On the program, Lillian was listed as singing. I thought 'This is a mistake.' So when that moment came, my little nephew got up and he had his iPhone and he put the iPhone up to the microphone and Lillian was singing 'My God is real.' So Lillian is sitting with her caretaker and her sisters and in the middle of the song Lillian turned around and said 'That's me.' Can you believe that?”

When all else fails, Boutte can depend on the music.

"This record is very calming,” he said. “ It's a good listening record. I'm gonna dedicate this one to Todd. I produced it. I picked the tunes, directed the arrangements. I wanted the last word. I don't want somebody saying 'You're missing the human element.' I don't want to sound human. I want to sound divine."

Like an angel.

John Swenson has been a prolific music writer and editor since 1967. He's worked for publications like Rolling Stone, OffBeat, and countless others. He was also a syndicated columnist for more than 20 years, and has written biographies of The Who, The Eagles, Stevie Wonder, and more.

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