Exciting Jazz/Funk/Dance Troupe Mwenso & the Shakes Debut with ‘Emergence (The Process of Coming into Being)’ (ALBUM REVIEW))

Having just seen the exciting jazz-funk-dance collective Mwenso & The Shakes open this year’s Newport Jazz Festival, it’s fair to say that a recording will only do partial justice to a band that puts on a thrilling and visual show too. Fortunately, their debut, Emergence (The Process of Coming into Being), captures a live performance and the listener can begin to appreciate some of their captivating vibe. The band has already been described by the New York Times as “intense, prowling, and ebullient.” Several other adjectives, like “fun,” “riveting,” and “captivating,” among others could join that list. 

The effervescent Michael Mwenso, who was dressed in a black catsuit while his band members were attired in red at the Newport Jazz performance, originally hails for Sierra Leone but grew up in London and was exposed to jazz at an early age, often visiting the famed Ronnie Scott’s where he was exposed to musicians such as Benny Carter, Elvin Jones, Ray Brown and Billy Higgins. Mwenso started as a trombonist, singer and performer playing in jump bands, reggae and Afrobeat horn sections and at hard-bop sessions. Mwenso’s talent as a performer caught the attention of many, which subsequently lead him to meet James Brown who allotted space for him to sing and dance at his London shows. He now has a unique knack of merging entertainment with jazz and cultural themes, including blues and world music in the intoxicating mix. His are energetic, uplifting sets, kicked off by members shouting, “Are you ready to shake?” as Mwenso takes the stage.  

Driven by Mwenso’s deep ancestral understanding of the African-American music tradition,  this album came together through many late nights in the band’s loft in Harlem exploring music outside of the traditional classroom using free-form musical expression. Hailing from many corners of the world including Sierra Leone, London, South Africa, Greenwich Village, Madagascar, France, Jamaica and Hawaii the band gains inspiration from each of their unique backgrounds while cohesively collaborating in a spontaneously communal and improvisational environment. Today they all reside in Harlem.

Of Emergence, Mwenso says, “This album is very personal to the musical and spiritual growth of Mwenso & The Shakes. Our music has become something that expresses empowering messages of love. The variety of musical styles that is presented here is something we have diligently, as a group, been working on over the last few years. I truly believe there is something for everyone on this album. I want people to listen to Emergence like they are in the audience. Close your eyes, put it on and imagine you are there with us on the journey.” It’s not just the music that’s enthralling but closer listens reveal some powerful messages too.

In 2012, friend and jazz musician Wynton Marsalis brought Mwenso to New York City to serve as a curator and programming associate at Jazz at Lincoln Center where he also booked nightly sets at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. Over the next few years, Mwenso booked and performed with the likes of Cécile McLorin Salvant, Jon Batiste, Aaron Diehl, Sullivan Fortner and Jamison Ross. Through these performances at Dizzy’s Mwenso began to collaborate with a wide variety of Juilliard trained musicians, which soon became known as The Shakes. These unique group of global artists presents music from with a formidable timeline of jazz and blues through African and Afro American music. Taking from the styling of Fats Waller, Muddy Waters, James Brown and many other American musical legends.

Mwenso & The Shakes are Mwenso (bandleader, vocals), Vuyo Sotashe (vocals), Kyle Poole(drums), Gabe Schnider (guitar), Mathis Picard (piano and keys), Ruben Fox (tenor sax), Julian Lee (tenor sax), Russell Hall (bass) and Michela Marino Lerman (tap dance). Listen to the entire album as you’ll be transported from the early stylings of Fats Waller through Monk and into contemporary, boundaryless music that anything but predictable. Better yet, go see their show. 

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