A&E

Mwenso & The Shakes honor the ancestors of jazz

Ensemble play theatrical tribute to the Harlem Renaissance's centennial

Mwenso & The Shakes, the dynamic, multinational vocal/instrumental/tap dance ensemble, may be the perfect ambassadors to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance. They'll do it Wednesday, Nov. 20, at Stanford's Bing Concert Hall, part of a 32-city "Harlem 100" North American tour that was created in collaboration with the National Jazz Museum in Harlem.

The co-ed nonet is led by Michael Mwenso, a native of Freetown, Sierra Leone, who took in the sounds of the famed Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London starting in his 'tweens. The Shakes, in turn, was born in Harlem, New York, and features members hailing from Madagascar, South Africa, France, Jamaica, Hawaii and New York City itself.

"We call ourselves a band of immigrants," Mwenso said in a recent interview with the Weekly. "Most of us are from different countries. And that really has had an effect on not only what you see, of course, but also definitely the sound that has been created from us coming from all these different places and being different nationalities.

"We want to reflect the world in a certain way," he continued. "I am glad that we are doing that."

Mwenso & The Shakes released its debut album, "Emergence: The Process of Coming Into Being" on the hip Ropeadope Records label on Aug. 2. The 12-track recording features a combination of band originals and jazz standards, while the Harlem 100 shows focus more on the music that came out of Harlem institutions such as the Cotton Club, The Apollo and even pianist Mary Lou Williams' apartment in the 1920s-'40s. Audience members can expect classics from the likes of Willie "The Lion" Smith, Fats Waller, Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday, albeit from a Shakes musical point of view.

"... You should be able to hear many different styles of not only Afro-American music," he said. "We deal with European music. We also deal with the American Songbook -- African rhythms and Latin rhythms," as well. "We try to combine musical values that really not only reflect the world but also leads you on a journey that connects to many different periods and generations of how the music developed.

"There will be some visuals and stills," he added. "And our set is immersive ... it's meant to take you into our apartment in Harlem where we're always rehearsing and living and going through music."

On previous Shakes tours, Mwenso would determine song selection on the spot. But since this tour involves more of a production with lighting cues and stage directions, he's had to stick to a setlist for the first time. That's not to say that he and The Shakes are unfamiliar with theatricality

"'Dress up, turn up, tune up (on stage) and play' -- that's been like the go-to in jazz," Mwenso noted. "We don't do that. We're a live theatrical thing. We travel with a lighting director and have costumes and wear makeup. So we've been very attuned to trying to present a theatrical show."

Two phases of Mwenso's musical education stick out as especially influential: Attending concerts at Ronnie Scott's starting when he was 11, the pianist-turned-trombonist-turned-vocalist/MC was able to witness many of the giants of jazz in the 1990s such as drummer/bandleader Elvin Jones, saxophonist/Count Basie Band alumnus Frank Foster and pianist Tommy Flanagan. "I was very blessed to still see a lot of the masters who are no longer with us," he said

Mwenso's mother was a friend of the house manager at Ronnie Scott's, so he was able to attend shows "and not be bothered," he said. "I could be very inquisitive and follow the musicians and ask them questions. I was basically allowed to roam free in an environment where there weren't any young children.

"I saw a lot of great people, not only in jazz but Ray Charles, B.B. King and James Brown," he added. So I got to see the kings or the Mount Rushmore of Afro-American music!"

In 2012, he was hired by friend and mentor Wynton Marsalis to curate concerts as a programming associate at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. This put him in contact with a host of Millennial musicians, including ones who have performed at Bing Concert Hall in the past few months -- pianists Jonathan Batiste and Sullivan Fortner and vocalist CĂ©cile McLorin Salvant (who returns on March 13, 2020, accompanied by composer/bandleader Darcy James Argue) as well as drummer/vocalist Jamison Ross and pianist Aaron Diehl.

"Jazz at Lincoln Center was really for a lot of us the meeting point," he recalled. "We all kind of used that time to create a community that a lot of us are in now. That was a very pivotal time for a lot of us."

While his former employer is decidedly West Side (and Midtown), Mwenso and his bandmates continue to be inspired by the Harlem of Uptown. "We're very close to the ancestors, and this is very personal for us to not only present this particular concept but also for us to be connected to something that actually we are a part of by living in the place," he said.

What: Mwenso & The Shakes with special guests.

Where: Bing Concert Hall, 327 Lasuen Mall, Stanford.

When: Wednesday, Nov. 20, 7:30 p.m.

Cost: $35-$75.

Info: Go to Stanford Live.

Freelance writer Yoshi Kato can be emailed at yoshiyoungblood@earthlink.net.

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