Tucked into a row of charming old brick buildings on a tidy side street in New York’s West Village is the Greenwich House Music School (GHMS), a community-centered place of music education and performance that dates back 112 years. Upstairs is an intimate, hardwood-floored performance hall that has been hosting local artists, young and old, since before World War I. In this deeply rooted space, GHMS has been offering the Thursday night Uncharted series; presenting performances by creative artists from across the musical spectrum premiering new ideas or new collaborations. On March 23, Michael Mwenso and the Shakes took their turn on the Uncharted stage with “They Laugh and Smile,” a musical journey through the struggles of being different, and “the redemptive power of love, community and inner strength.”
Mwenso is a whirl of creative energy. His deep history in the late-night world of jazz has crafted a singular place for him in that milieu. Born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, he moved with his mother to London at age 10, where he immediately dove into the jazz scene, aided by his mother’s position as a hostess at a prominent jazz club. He learned to sing and picked up piano and trombone, all while learning from and seeing shows by jazz giants in the club. The teenage Mwenso was even invited, several times, by James Brown to sing at his U.K. concerts. The years that followed saw Mwenso curating jazz jams in London, playing horn with Tony Allen and moving to New York to host shows at Jazz at Lincoln Center’s Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola, at the invitation of Wynton Marsalis.
As result of his jazz life, not only is Mwenso an exceptional musician, he also knows well how to lead a band and tell a dynamic story through music. Leading a tight six-piece iteration of the Shakes, he carried us through a sparkling, surprising emotional and musical roller coaster. The Shakes, dressed in all white, felt familial and tuned in, listening and watching Mwenso’s direction with precision, turning the mood or time signature on a dime. Partnered with Mwenso on the mic was remarkable South African vocalist Vuyo Sotashe, a highly distinguished musician in his own right. His voice is acrobatic; sliding effortlessly from a soaring, brilliantly clear tone down into a warm baritone hum. He and Mwenso share a beautiful dynamic, blending well in resonant harmonies and exchanging laughs and space for solos. Mwenso’s voice is its own creature, always impassioned but well versed at exploring a rainbow of characters; the mellifluous crooning, the gritty growling, the intoxicated seesawing and the rich, hearty, chuckling syllables. He sounds like he’s constantly experimenting at the outer boundaries of his voice.
Mwenso, Sotashe and the rest of the Shakes told stories and gave advice with their songs. They opened with a song of encouragement (“Until We See That We Are Strong”) then moved into a waltzing tune sharing a title with the show, “They Laugh and Smile,” which sang a reminder that “there is no one as special as you,” and to “love yourself.” Mwenso talked about the songs as “scenes,” which felt entirely true–the set felt as much a piece of theater as concert, with spoken and sung dialogues, journeying through somber swaths of sound and high-intensity, freewheeling rowdiness. He sang more guidance in a fiery, pulsing “prayer song” with chorus of “Trust the God in you/Know the God in you.” He led the band through these scenes with ample, devilish charm, pulling us, for example, from straight-ahead swing into an almost comical, heavy-footed musical stagger and back again. Mwenso thrives on the energy of the unexpected.
One of the Shakes was Michela Marino Lerman, a phenomenal tap dancer and, again, a highly accomplished performer in her own right. Her feet are fast and expressive like a quality drummer, rolling 16th notes with heels and toes and stomping out complex polyrhythms with ease. Until this show, I had not seen tap in a jazz performance; hearing Lerman dance made me wonder why. Her remarkable, musical feet added a wonderful sparkle to the sound. In fact, all the members of the group are maestros of their instruments and each brought something very special to the mix. Ruben Fox squealed and hummed breathily with his sax. Gabe Schnider’s guitar was quite unlike your average jazz guitar, often played–with stunning technique–through a powerfully fuzzy filter. Again, unexpected, like a spice or ingredient in a dish that you might not expect to blend well, but certainly does. Mathis Picard brought his mightily eloquent fingers to the grand piano for grand solos, syncopated habaneras and clear, swinging dialogue with Kyle Poole’s drum set and Dion Keith Kerr’s walking bass. Poole, Picard and Kerr often teamed up to paint with some Afro-Cuban colors–rumba clave patterns, salsa piano and the funky, interlocking rhythms that flavor Latin jazz.
Michael Mwenso’s territory is the jazz stage, surrounded by a keenly curated lineup of spirited musicians, free to create a unique world on the fly. Keep your ears and eyes out for Mwenso and The Shakes, wherever they might be (next up, London, for a musical all about Fats Waller).