Lenora Zenzalai Helm: Chronicles of a Butterﬂy: A Story of Transformation
liner notes by Howard Mandel
Chronicles of a Butterﬂy is a suite about transformation -- artistry come to fruition, participants
transformed. From the opening notes pianist Mulgrew Miller offers and the wordless tones singer
Lenora Zenzalai Helm utters, bassist Neal Caine's low bowing and Lenora's warning,
"Sleepwalking is a dangerous thing" then the insinuations of Doug Wamble's guitar, a mood of
foreboding builds. But foreboding leads us on -- we are at the start of metamorphosis. How this
album unfolds, what Lenora and her musicians do to address their theme and how their music
effects you, the listener, are at ﬁrst unknown. Continue for an experience, perhaps an epiphany
and unpredictable resolution.
So it must be for the caterpillar, drawn by mysterious instinct through a change no being could
foresee unless its species had passed through a zillion times before. Lenora has conceived the
stages of avoidance, distraction, withdrawal and eventual connection, maturity and positioning in
society as a succession of lovely jazz performances. Each of her renditions of standards and
originals, recorded in live small group settings (without drums!) give voice, swing, style and
substance to her concept, though each is enjoyable in itself. To be able to bring this off is the
mark of a thorough, thoughtful artist, in this case a woman who has mastered her art and
gathered the right company to realize her vision.
The irresistible lure of her phrasing makes "Anyplace I Hang My Hat Is Home" a siren song,
justiﬁcation enough for going with the ﬂow. She interprets "Harlem Nocturne" with her combo's
touch-perfect support to convey that longing may be based on fantasy -- just what makes us want
to believe it, though with the dawn the dream is gone. She drifts as though through the ether on
Ellington's "Azure," Caine's plucked bass Lenora's only anchor. She dramatizes the "what if's?"
of bassist John Price's "Emerald Blue," glimpsing about what real love might be, and in the
quatrain "I guess I'm waiting/For you to follow/Before I give you/all my tomorrows" delivering a
crystal clear statement of the assurances the uncertain seek before committing themselves to
going forward. It's less chancy to stick with the basics, Lenora suggests with "I Want A Little
Sugar In My Bowl" -- the sassy Bessie Smith blues she discovered through Nina Simone.
Wamble and Miller, you can tell from their solos, know this truism, too.
"Somnambulism 2" ends the sequence of songs Lenora equates with the caterpillar's diapause,
when it tries to hold off change. Entering its cremaster phase, the creature grasps for foundation
-- maybe admiration of enduring character, as celebrated by "Yes, I Remember Clifford," or
genuinely sweet relations as in the irrepressible "Just You, Just Me" or even faith in the cycles of
regeneration that "You Must Believe In Spring" asserts.
The caterpillar's destiny is the triumph of its imaginal cells, leading to the butterﬂy's emergence,
of course, and to Lenora that means an individual realizes her or his place in the greater world --
as "Hermano Frere" puts it, our responsibilities to each other. The late Andrew Hill wrote this
piece in the wake of 9/11's turbulence, and Lenora sang it with the pianist-composer while on the
tour following his 2003 Danish Jazzpar award. Hill made it a bossa nova to emphasize, as Lenora
does, the sheer joy of human interconnection.
"Andrew was very much about not being predictable and not being trite," Lenora recalls. "He
always encouraged me to improvise, to trust what I hear ﬁrst, to think about the melody and
structure of music not as a+b=c but that it's more ﬂuid, like a butterﬂy lighting on your shoulder.
The more you have an expectation, the more it eludes you. The more you let it be what it is and
have the courage to let it turn out, the better. He said, 'Who you are is who you are.' He said, 'It'll
come -- let yourself be yourself.'"
To that point, Lenora takes up "The Gift of New Orleans," a second song by bassist Price, who
was in her ﬁrst high school band and also attended Berklee School of Music with her. Again, it's
a testament to positivity: people survive and thrive, even following catastrophe. "After the Rain,"
one of John Coltrane's most moving ballads, is about "what happens when the dust settles,"
Lenora says. Her wordless vocal, surfacing from interior depths, brings her suite towards a
"I went through a number of changes while working on Chronicles of a Butterﬂy " Lenora says
of the six year gap since her previous album, Voice Paintings. "I've been composing, performing
and teaching -- but as for recording, I'm returning after a period of dormancy. The album title
came from conversations I had with Andrew, during which he talked about his hiatus from the
high proﬁle jazz world. What does an artist do when there's a break in the recorded
documentation of their work?"
The answer is: Don't stop. Hill's comments, the support of producer Branford Marsalis ("I told
her," he says, "'This recording is about you, your options, your range, your control' -- and she
used the songs to convey emotion, which is what people want to hear"), and Miller, Caine, Price,
Wamble have been vital to Lenora's return, but she is clearly not someone who depends on others
or casts her fate to the wind.
"It struck me over the ﬁve years when I worked on this album that I wanted to wake up," she
says. "There's a deliberateness I was looking at during this project, which makes it different from
my other projects." The album isn't meant to be a lesson; she hopes the music will simply be
enjoyed. "But things that are simple are also profound," Lenora understands, "depending on the
lens through which you look."
Look at the butterﬂy: beauty on a breeze, arriving from the most complex of passages. Like
Lenora Zenzalai Helm's music, casually you like it but attend and comprehend much more. Oh
yes, another relevant butterﬂy fact: in many ancient cultures, as in this Chronicle, the butterﬂy is
symbol of the soul.
INTERVIEW WITH BRANFORD MARSALIS FOR CHRONICLES OF A BUTTERFLY
by Howard Mandel
Branford Marsalis, producer: "I met Lenora when she came to Berklee College of Music. She wanted to sing but didn't know a lot of jazz at the time -- which was fine with me. Over the years I've seen her meticulously hook her stuff up -- learn, study, incorporate classical elements, worry abut the scientific aspects of her voice. She may not have gained enormous acclaim or commercial success for what she's done yet, but I really admire her for a number of reasons.”
"For one thing, if a musician has no idea what they want to do, I'm the wrong producer for them. My idea of how to produce is to stay out of the way. I try to avoid having any artistic influence at all. I believe that in jazz the producer and engineer have one simple job: to get an accurate, realistic replica of what the sound was in the studio. On my productions we don't use a lot of reverb, compression or any of that -- we work in larger rooms as they did in olden days. I know what kind of sound I want.”
"But I didn't have to tell Lenora use this musician, or try this song. When she suggested something, I didn't override her. She has a large range of repertoire, from 'Anyplace I Hang My Hat is Home' to Coltrane's 'After the Rain.' To attempt that, it's really beneficial to have the kind of physical control she has. Her concept is an old concept the musicians have gotten away from to the detriment of the music. She sings the songs using sound to convey emotion, whereas many modern jazz musicians talk about the chord changes as if they're beautiful in themselves, when they don't really exist -- the sounds are what exist, the chord changes are a convenience. She's trying to use the sound to create emotional content. The more musicians can do that, the more we can move away from pointy-headed intellectuals -- get the music to people who want to hear some emotion in the music.”
"When we first talked about the program, almost all the records Lenora said she liked the most had half a chorus of a player soloing, no more. I said 'That's right, it's about you.' This recording is about you -- your options, your range, your control. The most effective records of singers depend on the singers just singing the melodies. That's what people want to hear. Singers should just sing -- not try to compete with the instrumentalists. I wouldn't try to compete with the drummer; I try to match them emotionally or sonically, but using saxophone things.”
"Lenora immediately pushed the record outside the formula by not having a drummer. Not having a drummer separates this record from the usual, typical cornball formulas, and it let her control the album, rather that a drummer's playing controlling the album. Then, the recording becomes a singer with trio. It changes the whole dynamic, and it was her idea. I was happy with that, but you've got to have a bass player who has a good sound.”
"The advantage we had on this record is that Neal Caine is so swinging and Mulgrew Miller is so hip and Doug Wamble just sat down and didn't say 'What about my solo?' Everyone was completely focused on what the group required. I love working with musicians who work like that. It's always a temptation for a soloist to play something that brings light to themselves to the detriment of what the song and the singer requires. I always try to find ways to challenge musicians to sublimate their own egos, insecurities or strengths for the sake of the group. The trick is to not make it an opportunity for them to show off. That's also why I don't need to play on a CD I'm producing. In this case, the songs wouldn't have been enhanced by my solos, and that's the only reason to do it.”
"So this was a great group effort. It's unusual to have a situation where everyone's saying forget about my ego, let's play this music. That's what they all did for Lenora, though."
INTERVIEW WITH JOHN E. PRICE FOR CHRONICLES OF A BUTTERFLY
by Howard Mandel
John Price, bassist: "I've known Lenora since high school days, and have seen her develop from a jazz fan into being a jazz singer. We've never recorded before -- the last thing we did together before this recording was a concert in Davenport, Iowa. But listening to all the things she's put out, I feel she's become more adept with the idiom every year in every way, across the board, and now she really knows what it is to be a jazz singer. She's arrived at the fact that she is a musician. Sometimes singers are only that, but Lenora is always prepared musically, and talks to musicians as a musician, because she is one. She has that musical competency.
"It was wonderful to work with her in the studio -- she created a very professional setting, she knew what she wanted to do and she did it. I didn't give her directions, and she didn't ask for any, because she knew where she wanted to go.
"She brought a new energy to the songs I wrote, especially the 'The Gift of New Orleans, which I'd recorded before at a slower tempo and in a different key. I prefer the song in this key now. It's a song I'd begun to write as an homage to Charles Mingus, but when I sat down to write it Hurricane Katrina hit, and it became about the broader scope of that event. So the music became an homage to Mingus and the lyrics to the people of New Orleans.
"Lenora brought me to write the lyrics of "Emerald Blue," which I'd written to be very passionate, about the beginning of a relationship, perhaps, the moment of how and when to begin. I hadn't thought of recording it as a vocal track until she told me how much she liked it. When she heard it and said she wanted to sing it, I said 'Wow, I guess I'll write some lyrics.' Otherwise, I might not have written any.
"She's always been fun to be around, because she had an appreciation of so many different kinds of music. I remember us sitting down together at a piano, working on music jazz standards, songs sung by Ella Fitzgerald, Joni Mitchell, Fleetwood Mac . . . Lenora has always had a wide open ear to many different kinds of music, not only one variety. She's really open to all sorts of things, yet she's very determined, almost driven. And she drives like a New Yorker, zero or 60, not much in between."