On Sept. 30 at the New York Hot Jazz Festival, Michael Mwenso & the Shakes presented The Joint Is Jumpin’, a Fats Waller revue the group debuted in London last year. Wearing a black catsuit, Mwenso emceed, conducted, danced, and sang songs like Waller’s “Thief in the Night,” which he delivered with soulful inflection. Sometimes he engaged in chorale-like harmonizing with Vuyo Sotashe, who subverted the lyrics of “The Reefer Song (If You’re a Viper)” with his angelic tenor. Ruben Fox and Julian Lee uncorked booting tenor sax solos, while on “Handful of Keys” and “London Suite,” Mathis Picard juxtaposed Wallerian stride with Sun Ra-meets-Messiaen colors on a ramshackle upright and Roland Juno synth.
Code-switching through a broad lexicon of social music with maximum commitment, minimal irony, and an attitude of fun is the Shakes’ default mode, whether they’re playing South African protest songs, holiday classics, Tin Pan Alley, the blues, or the Mwenso-penned tunes the Shakes will release commercially in early 2019. “It’s theater meets opera meets James Brown meets jazz meets total improvisation,” says Brianna Thomas, who has sung alongside Mwenso on numerous occasions. “You never know what Michael is going to do.”