Jonathan Butler doesn't think of it as new musical direction.
The jazzy pop-soul singer-musician, perhaps best known for his late '80s/early '90s R&B; hits such as "Lies" and "Sarah, Sarah," is now adding his laid-back, George Benson-influenced flair to gospel. He doesn't necessarily see Brand New Day, his latest album, as a break from the impassioned secular work he has done for the past 30 years.
"I think it's something that's been a long time coming," says Butler, who plays Pier Six Concert Pavilion tonight with smooth-jazz saxophonist Boney James as part of the PAETEC Jazz Festival. "I've been a born-again Christian for 27 years. It's not me trying to do gospel. It's a God thing. ... I'm sensitive about God's presence, and I want it to flow through everything I do."
Brand New Day isn't Butler's first foray into gospel music. Three years ago, the South African artist released The Worship Project on the Maranatha label. The new CD is his second gospel project for the Costa Mesa, Calif.-based company. It follows 2005's acclaimed jazzy pop offering Jonathan, released by Rendezvous, an indie label co-owned by saxman Dave Koz.
Like Butler's recent secular work, his approach to gospel incorporates sprightly elements of various styles. And it's all smoothly delivered. On Brand New Day, the performer colors his songs of spiritual uplift with shades of reggae, R&B;, even progressive rock. The album finely mingles synthetic and live instrumentation, all driven by Butler's robust and vibrant vocals. "I grew up with all kinds of influences. They're rather broad," says Butler, 46, calling from his Los Angeles home during a tour break. "I draw from my strengths when I'm making a record."
Butler, like Benson before him, is a formidable guitarist whose vocals are equally impressive. Since the beginning of his recording career in 1977, he hasn't been easy to peg. He isn't a jazz singer in the traditional sense. Butler generally sings a melody straight and, save for a scat line here and there, doesn't jump into any elastic vocal gymnastics a la Al Jarreau.
Although he started his career as mostly an instrumentalist, initially garnering critical acclaim and commercial success in his native country and in England, Butler later smoothed out his approach and sang more. Around the mid-1980s, his jazzy, folkish songs gave way to pop-glossed R&B; tunes, splashed with synthesized horns and keyboard lines.
But in his shows these days, the artist liberally blends the smooth with the spiritual.
"You can't have one foot in negative music and one foot in gospel," Butler says. "This is not me trying something new because I didn't make it in one area. This is a calling for me."
In a way, Butler says, the new gospel tunes are an extension of the open-hearted songs he has always sung. It's just that over the years, his perspective of love has expanded and deepened.
"Everyone wants to feel good," he says. "The truth is, God wants intimacy. He's not interested in your money or garments. The music is a vehicle to bring you in. You worship with your heart. The songs I sing in many ways edify God. It's all about love."
See Jonathan Butler with Boney James at Pier Six Concert Pavilion, 731 Eastern Ave., at 6 tonight. Tickets are $40-$60 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or visiting ticketmaster.com. The festival continues at Pier Six with performances by Earth, Wind & Fire tomorrow and B.B. King, Al Green and Little Richard on Saturday.
The PAETEC Jazz Festival also includes a number of free shows:
Bond Street Wharf Landing
Harbor East, Thames and Bond streets
Michael Thomas Quintet (5 p.m.), Lafayette Gilchrist 3 Plus (6:30 p.m.) and Rumba Club (8 p.m.)
Todd Butler Group (5 p.m.), TK Blue (6:30 p.m.) and Don Braden Organic Quartet (8 p.m.)
Power Plant Live Plaza
Market Place and Water Street
The Repeatos (6 p.m.), Djabe (8 p.m.) and Soulive (10 p.m.)
Skerik's Syncopated Taint Trio (6 p.m.), Shuffle Demons (8 p.m.) and the Anders Osborne Band (10 p.m.)
Eubie Blake Legacy Big Band (6 p.m.), Fertile Ground (8 p.m.) and Bonerama (10 p.m.)
Harbor East, 900 S. Caroline St.
Paradigm Shift (noon), Latin Giants of Jazz (2 p.m.), The Bridge (4 p.m.), The Fabulous Thunderbirds (6 p.m.) and Rusted Root (8 p.m.)