This story was originally published in RVA 41 which can be in various locations around town, or you can read it right here. This is a slightly modified version formatted for digital distribution.
There is no band quite like Butcher Brown. If one were to head into any city in the United States with a vibrant music scene, find all the heaviest hitters, and form a band, it would not capture the magic that is one of Richmond’s premier music acts. The combination of a jazz scene fueled by Virginia Commonwealth University, an underground hip-hop scene, along with the constant influence of rock and roll that skirts the fringes of town, and behold just a few of the major influences that make Butcher Brown a unique experience among Richmond groups.
I have, of course, seen Butcher Brown play many times, and I have seen them around the scene, but we here at RVA Mag felt that it had been far too long since we’ve had a proper sit down. First to arrive to our scheduled virtual meeting on a sunny summer weekday is Morgan Burrs; the trained Jazz guitarist is the only one of the five to not have a solo project to their name, but regaled me with his exciting career as a songwriter and producer for smaller artists constantly making trips to LA where he is a known name.
Next is bass player Andrew Randazzo, or R4nd4zzo as he is known for his solo work. Having studied upright bass at VCU Randazzo’s side projects consist mainly of other hip-hop work, but he clearly has been unable to shirk his passion for jazz. Since 2017 Randazzo has been breaking into arranging for big bands and frequently performs with a number of them around the city.
DJ Harrison entered next. The producer and multi-instrumentalist started off doing jazz drumming at VCU where he first encountered a number of the band members. DJ Harrison has a thriving career as a solo artist, yet still finds time to play all over the country with Butcher Brown never missing a show.
Corey Fonville arrived and the conversations between the band members begin with very in jokes shooting around faster than I could keep up with. Fonville took a moment to explain his background, and although he didn’t attend VCU like the other members of Butcher Brown, he was trained on the drum kit which he has the honor of occupying the position of percussionist for Butcher Brown.
Last to arrive is Marcus Tenney, aka Tennishu. Tennishu also has an expansive career as a rapper outside of Butcher Brown, for which the rapping is a rather new part of the equation. For Butcher Brown in the past Tennishu has been playing trumpet, the instrument he studied when he was at VCU, and tenor saxophone, an instrument he picked up as his tenure at the university was coming to a close. All of these members coalescing is an exercise in how a band that is able to capture the perfect people in the perfect moment exhibits a kind of magic happenstance that can only exist in a collaborative medium such as music.
Butcher Brown is known above other aspects for its eclectic nature. Although jazz fusion has been a core part of their sound, they have included aspects of numerous styles including hip-hop, rock, r&b, any a variety of other influences that have led them to being unpredictable. When asked about this philosophy, Tennishu again spoke up and said, “Butcher Brown, in my eyes at the time… a lot of the bands I was in [before Butcher Brown] had a concrete way of thinking about music… Butcher Brown didn’t strike me like that at all. All the older musicians that we looked up to, that’s how it seemed like they were doing what they were doing.”
Butcher Brown has incorporated hip hop elements into their music in the past with Tennishu acting as emcee and picking up the microphone when he puts down his saxophone. However in their LP from last year, Butcher Brown Presents Triple Trey, a retelling of the Tennishu record Triple Trey, hip-hop is the quintessential element that defines the record. As to why, Tennishu once again spoke up about when rap and hip-hop became central to their development as a group. “A lot of the rap music we were all listening to was a heavy mix of jazz and rap… They have actual music in their beats, it’s not just a loop, and it doesn’t have to sound any sort of way. The desire to play like that elevated it right into hip-hop,” said Tennishu. This of course leads into the other novel and defining feature of Butcher Brown Presents Triple Trey, Randazzo’s big band arrangements. Similarly, although he developed the skill in college, it has only been in the last few years that Randazzo has arranged for big bands, and a very new development for Butcher Brown.
In the music that the group has been dropping in recent months ahead of their new album Solar Music coming out October 6th, they seem to have pulled back from their big band jazz elements. “DYKWYD [Feat. Braxton Cook]” is fair straight ahead jazz fusion, now this does bleed directly into their next single “This Side Of Sunshine” which features a plucked acoustic guitar utilizing some jazzier chords voice leading, and this is backed up by a bouncy, wet bass tone and a catchy synth melody. All of it culminates in the very end of the track with the vocals coming just for a moment to delicately whisper “sunshine,” finally to be echoed in their melody by a multihorn line before a fade out. This remixing of their concepts into a larger ebb and flow could spell some interesting develops from the all ahead all the time of Butcher Brown Present Triple Trey.
With all of them having thriving solo projects, it’s a wonder how they keep it straight, and additionally why they continue to nurture those projects despite the
success of Butcher Brown. Tennishu on the subject said, “[for me] Tennishu is the water that everything is sitting in. There has to be another way to get new ideas in [the group] or you’re just gonna be eating your own vomit and wondering why people aren’t buying the records in 10 years. With the internet that’s not gonna work anymore, just because you get one 100,000,000 views doesn’t mean that tomorrow someone else isn’t going to. You have to make records that are extremely potent… For Butcher [Brown] the most efficient way is for all of us to have our own shit. It’s like a well that we’re feeding.”
For me, I felt that I had to ask the question that plagues every band after they find success in a relatively small market; why stay? Fonville has since moved off to Philadelphia, but continues to make The Butcher Brown of it all work for him, but as for the rest of the band, they no shortage of kind words and civic promotion. Harrison was the first to speak up, saying, “All my families from here… but I can hop on the train and get to New York or Philly, or I can hop on a jet and get to Chicago, but it’s nice to have a home base for when I’m not on the road. Randazzo followed up with, “it’s easy to live in Richmond… I’ve got my little family setup. I love to go to the big cities and visit and work, but it’s nice to come home to Richmond and get to go to Chimborazo park, and go eat at Kuba Kuba.”
Besides family, Burrs and Tennishu just really appreciate the culture and attitude. First Burrs said, “you have to be real about Richmond, it’s not a big industry town. You need to get out from time to time… But I like Richmond; it’s a great music town, a great indie town, great for people getting started in music… I like being in a big city for a while and coming home to Richmond to unwind.” Lastly, Tennishu was able to sum it all up, as any goog emcee should, saying, “You have a university that is relatively cheap that is surrounded by a songwriting community; you gotta pay a lot of money for that. You gotta go to LA or New York for that, or you can go to VCU, and since you’re gonna be 18 or 19 you’re not gonna have much anyways. It’s a great town to learn something for a few years, if you focus, and then you start following the trails to LA or New York or Nashville. For Butcher Brown, or musicians on this level, it gets to a point where you’re in the airport, and it doesn’t really matter where you live.”
Photos by Joey Wharton.