The butterfly life cycle consists of four stages: egg, caterpillar or feeding stage, pupa (also called chrysalis) or transitional stage, and finally the adult reproductive stage. Starting life as an egg, the caterpillar goes through profound changes that leave it an adult hardly recognizable from the creature it was in its infancy. The butterfly exemplifies the growth and change necessary in even the simplest life cycle, and also the inherent beauty that comes from that development.
When Adam Deitch (drums, Lettuce/Break Science) and Borahm Lee (keyboards/producer, Break Science/Pretty Lights) first moved to Denver from New York, it was Hunter Roberts (bassist/visual artist, Break Science) who introduced them to the vibrant local jazz scene. The experience was a surreal one for Roberts, who a little over a decade ago was listening to Break Science in his high school’s parking lot.
“So Borahm moved to town and started playing at this jazz jam that I was hosting,” Roberts told Live For Live Music. “I knew who he was. And then, we just started connecting. Now, we’re really good friends. I’ve helped the dude move eight times to different spots around town, physically breaking my back for the man. We’re good, solid [laughs].”
Deitch and Lee already had a friend in the Mile High City, Big Gigantic saxophonist/producer Dominic Lalli. Together, the three had long fantasized about putting together a jazz project. When Live For Live Music spoke to Deitch, he called “Renaissance man” Hunter Roberts the missing piece to starting what would eventually take shape as BTTRFLY Quintet, following the addition of Deitch’s Lettuce bandmate Eric “Benny” Bloom (trumpet).
“This was the pandemic,” Deitch recalled by phone as he was halfway across the world traveling Europe with Lettuce. “None of us are on tour, we’re all friends, we all enjoy each other’s company. Let’s just make a record and put it out independently. And then we got to play a bunch of shows in Denver.”
With the pandemic acting as a catalyst, talks of “we oughta” became “we might as well.” When Roberts was presented with the opportunity to play at Cervantes’ Masterpiece Ballroom for the Denver hotspot’s first COVID-friendly concert in 2020, it gave BTTRFLY Quintet the chance to break out of its egg. Before a seated, socially distant crowd of 30-something people, the band made its debut in the city that had given it life.
“It felt like Madison Square Garden even though it was 37 [people] because none of us had performed in a while,” Deitch said. “So those shows were a great way for us to just remember what performing felt like and get back in the zone of just playing in front of people. So it was a beautiful experience and I’m so glad that we all started to compose and write for the band and make it a thing.”
The group went on to play nearly a dozen concerts at Cervantes’ in 2020 and 2021 as venues around the country began to creep back open. While the sanitized nature of these concerts was foreign for audience and artist alike, it inadvertently touched on what would become a central theme for the nascent BTTRFLY Quintet.
“It was definitely strange, and no one was allowed to come up front and dance,” Roberts remembered. “I guess it was more like a jazz club in that regard. People sitting at their tables, kind of set back a little further. But I mean, that’s what the direction that we were already going for was more to satisfy the jazz influence that everybody has, that some of them aren’t able to tap into ’cause they’re doing their own projects with their own stuff.”
Just as jazz had served as the bedrock of Deitch and Lee’s friendship with Roberts, so too would it serve as the foundation of BTTRFLY Quintet. Though the musicians all found their fame on different ends of the musical spectrum from funk to livetronica and beyond, they all shared a common love of jazz that was more often than not relegated to their free time and one-off performances. With this new venture, they would be able to put that love front and center, but they’d do it on their terms.
“We all just totally agreed on not doing what’s called straight-ahead jazz, which is more traditional jazz,” Deitch said. “We wanted to add something futuristic because we’re all in sort of modern groups and we dig modern sounds. But the idea to have songs in some different time signatures, have drum solos, sax solos, and that sort of thing, that comes from us having a love for jazz music and just American Black music in general and how to combine it all into a thing that represents us and where we’re at and something kind of different from what we’re known from.”
As the pupa of this new project enveloped the members of BTTRFLY Quintet, they entered what lepidopterists (entomologists who specialize in studying butterflies and moths) refer to as “the transition stage.” Between the pandemic-forced downtime and the company of fellow jazz-minded performers, the musicians were given the chance to explore something outside their normal purview. This stylistic leap was most significant for Dominic Lalli and Borahm Lee, the two members most associated with electronic music.
“Dom may not be known as a jazz aficionado, he’s known as sort of an electronic dance music producer and that sort of thing,” Deitch said. “But when you hear him on this record, you go, ‘Who is that amazing saxophonist?’ I’d like for his young fans that just know him as Mr. Big Gigantic to know him as the amazing jazz musician that he is. And same for Borahm. Borahm is Mr. Pretty Lights and Break Science, but he’s a phenomenal jazz pianist and I would say 2% of his fans from Pretty Lights and Break Science know how good he is at the Fender Rhodes and piano and stuff like that. So this is just, in a way, it’s this coming out party for people, for the general fans to recognize his first love and his talent.”
Deitch and Lee already had experience pulling people out of their usual scene, with Roberts being one of them. The duo recently brought the hired gun jazz bassist along to work with Break Science, including at last year’s Brooklyn Comes Alive. (Speaking of “outside their scene,” Benny has a country cover band Honky Tonk Heroes that features Hunter. “He goes full flash for it,” said the bassist. He’s got his full getup.”)
BTTRFLY Quintet also afforded Hunter the chance to explore a different medium altogether with the bassist designing the album artwork for the group’s full-length debut, Coast, out November 4th. In addition to his training as a classical upright bassist, Roberts is an accomplished visual artist whose work has been highlighted by the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art and Foothills Magazine.
“I mean, the idea is not to be pigeonholed in life if you have multiple interests,” Deitch said. “One could be a photographer and a painter or a poet and an artist. … You know, you could pigeonhole Hunter. He’s as good a painter as anyone I’ve ever seen, but he’s also a phenomenal jazz bassist and a composer. So, for people to recognize all three of those things from the album art to hearing him play and hearing his songs, it’s great. It makes me happy to see people realize those things.”
Roberts recalled showing the artwork to his bandmates for the first time: “It’s pretty hilarious because I’m from Colorado, and we got Borahm and Adam, the staunch New Yorkers that are like, ‘What is this dude doing? Camping? Is he camping or something?’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, no, just take a deeper look. Here’s the coast.’ I would say it’s honestly like a listener experiencing the music on the album. It’s hopefully going to take them to a place where they could just create some openness in their own minds and soul, I hope.
“That was exciting for me to do and also a challenge to make everyone happy with it. … I sent them quite a few different concepts. And then, I had to take the reins and be like, ‘All right, that’s enough collaboration [laughs]. I just gotta do what I do.'”
Due to the nature of the pandemic, collaboration during the songwriting process wasn’t much of an option. Instead, each musician wrote their own songs before bringing them into the group. This was second nature for Roberts, who described himself as coming from a “lone wolf jazz background.” Deitch, meanwhile, already had a cache of songs that he tailored to the particular talents of BTTRFLY Quintet.
“And so I think I wrote five or six or seven songs for the band and then they were like, ‘Oh whoa, hold up. We got some songs too.’ And I was like, ‘Great.’ I like to be a catalyst for that,” Deitch said. “Because everybody likes to overthink writing a lot and they’d rather just play covers, [because] it’s easier. Because writing is ‘what if it’s not good?’ It’s not about good. You just write to people’s strengths and you make it good.”
When they did finally come together, they made it good. The result is Coast, the group’s full-length debut featuring ten tracks, with at least one attributed to each member in addition to an uptempo cover of Little Dragon‘s “Scribbled Paper” (Roberts’ idea).
“It was interesting to see what people came up with because it all aligned really well into a whole band format, where it sounded pretty cohesive throughout but each tune had our own style that we liked and checked out,” Roberts said. “But we wrote them all on our own, not as a band working it out in the basement.”
While the caterpillar’s job is to eat, the butterfly’s job is to lay eggs. The adult butterfly—the final form of a caterpillar—will fly around laying hundreds of eggs on plants that will then grow and perpetuate the life cycle again and again.
As the veils of COVID lockdowns lifted, so too was BTTRFLY Quintet permitted to spread its wings and leave the cocoon of socially distant concerts and even Denver itself. Gigs have followed at Spirit of the Suwannee Music Park for Brainquility Music Festival and Meow Wolf, with a Coast album release show set for November 4th at Ophelia’s in Denver.
Looking to the future, the BTTRFLY Quintet plans to lay its proverbial eggs at jazz clubs around the country as well as in the studio again (per Roberts). The project has always been about taking people out of their normal environment, and that goes for fans as much as it does musicians.
“When we started playing with BTTRFLY and we noticed a bunch of 25-year-olds coming up and they’re really excited to see Dom and I’m like, ‘Well, this is working,'” Deitch observed. “They’re Big Gigantic fans and they’re coming to hear us play our own compositions that are in a jazz-funk medium and they end up loving it. … And then people go, ‘Oh, I didn’t know this kind of music existed.’ And they’re kind of learning how to dance. They start doing the ride the rail dance with the headbang. And it’s like, ‘Oh, you don’t have to do that at this kind of music.’ It’s kind of a different dance mode. But go ahead and do that if that’s your moves [laughs].”
For these eggs to survive and hatch into new jazz fans, they require an environment not intrinsically averse to the genre. By using the kind of improvisation and engaging beats that have made Lettuce, Break Science, and Big Gigantic exciting live acts, the band members have drawn on their experience introducing their fans to jazz without them knowing it. For Hunter, one of the broader goals for the group is to take “jazz” off the list of dirty words for music fans.
“I mean, the whole word ‘jazz’ is just a stigma,” Roberts observed. “As an average listener, that word pops up and you instantly… You think you have an understanding of it, especially with younger people that might not know. Most of us went to school for it. We know that it can be more, and it’s way deeper than that. But then, you say jazz and people, they think about something that might not be what we’re doing. I wouldn’t call it jazz. It’s just music.”
Having reached completion, the BTTRFLY Quintet life cycle will begin again when listeners hit play on Coast.
“We really want people to check it out, give it a listen, sit down, have a glass of wine and put the headphones on and put on your stereo and close your eyes and listen to it or make sure you’re in a relaxed good place and give it a shot,” Deitch said. “We put a lot into it and we’re looking forward to people hearing it…It definitely has a good feeling and it might stretch your mind a little bit, but not too much.”
BTTRFLY Quintet – Coast