Mwenso and the Shakes sound like a convergence of Sun Ra and James Brown, with an uplifting, life-affirming message for frontman/band namesake Michael Mwenso to bestow on his disciples. Mwenso honed his musical skills on his journey from his native Sierra Leone by way of London and lately to Harlem with the help of several big-time musical mentors, including Brown, who let a 15-year-old Mwenso sing and dance at his London shows.
But before Brown, Wynton Marsalis had already taken a 14-year-old Mwenso under his wing, and after watching the young trombonist/vocalist’s successful late-night jams in a trendy London club, in 2012 Marsalis offered him the job of curator and programming associate at New York City’s Jazz at Lincoln Center, booking nightly after-hours sets at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.
Mwenso put his band together from many of the young artists he met through his duties there, including tap dancer Michela Marino Lerman, whose frenzied freestyle interpretive tapping is a featured part of a Mwenso and the Shakes show.
The sound is both world and worldly, globally influenced and liberally sprinkled with homilies about caring for one another and for the planet. It gets labeled as jazz, but putting any tags or markers on this stuff is too restrictive. It seems to find its own meandering way, strolling leisurely through genres without perching on any one for very long.
“Overture” gives you a quick preview of what you’re gonna be in for on the band’s debut album, Emergence [The Process of Coming into Being], a flash of James Brown-era big-band funk that breaks down into a laid back, outerworldy Sun Ra expedition through the cosmos before traveling South with some Caribbean hiccups.
“Resolute” reveals what will become the main theme, Mwenso’s musical sermons about love and togetherness laid out on a musical canvas that ripples and roils with genre confusion. One moment you’re rippling along with a ’60s feel, like a hipper version of the 5th Dimension, then Mwenso cuts in with some gospel soul featuring celestial harmonies with co-vocalist Vuyo Sotashe. But that, in turn, gets interrupted by the interplay between twin tenor saxes from Ruben Fox and Julian Lee jumping in for brief frenetic conversation like two friends shouting at each over traffic noise on a busy street. Mwenso warbles soulfully to a marching tempo for a few beats before the horns go visit Sun Ra’s home planet before returning to the ’60s love vibe for the big finish.
Mwenso’s recent live shows are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance, and feature music from artists of the era entwined with his own compositions, and that tribute is reflected on this album as well.
Fats Waller’s 1935 “Sweet Thing” was labeled a foxtrot, albeit a smooth one that gets a bit bumpier as Waller’s Louis Armstrong-style vocals got a bit rougher toward the end. Mwenso’s take slows the tune to a crawl, sweetened considerably and punched up dramatically.
For an interlude, Mwenso reminds the audience in a spoken-word segment that “Only your trust, only your faith, only your belief in yourself will keep you here.”
Keyboardist Mathis Picard struts his stuff on stride piano great Willie The Lion Smith’s “Echoes of Spring,” with Mwenso name-checking other Harlem based piano lions, including Fats Waller and James P Johnson.
“No Regrets” is the pinnacle of Mwenso’s self-help sermons, starting out accompanied by a P-Funk-y soundtrack entangled with Sun Ra’s robed extraterrestrials before Mwenso changes orbits once again for some sax-y funk that segues into a Sly and the Family Stone flashback that stops in to say hidy before yielding to a Talking Heads “Once in a Lifetime” moment.
A Mwenso and the Shakes show, as well as this album, is a mesmerizing cross-cultural, genre-busting extravaganza that entwines you in its tendrils in an embrace you’ll find it hard to disengage from. Just give in, listen, and be healed.