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.”
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If the process is collective, Mwenso galvanizes it with formidable showmanship, bolstered by fluency in the necessary dialects. At 34, he has a lean, loose-limbed frame that complements any item in his flamboyant wardrobe. His partners mirror his sartorial eccentricity—it’s hard to think of another world-class improvising band with a hardcore jazz vocabulary that generates a more intensely visual spectacle.
For that reason, it’s difficult to represent the full flavor of the Shakes via CD or streaming. But the group’s first commercially released tracks, beginning with the October release of the single “Resolute,” denote a refinement of Mwenso’s unique concept of social music. There’s a homiletic quality to “Resolute,” and subsequent issues like “Laugh and Sing” and “No Regrets,” that carries, as he puts it, “an underlying message of empowerment.” He interpolates jocular asides evocative of the English music-hall patter that “enthralled” him as a London adolescent, and what he describes as “a dramatic tinge that comes from love of musicals and British classical music—Elgar, Gilbert and Sullivan, The Mikado, that type of British art song.”
Mwenso doesn’t attempt idioms he hasn’t directly experienced. Born in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he learned to sing and preach in church, he emigrated to London with his mother at 10. She took a position as a nightclub hostess not far from Ronnie Scott’s, the prestigious jazz club, whose floor manager watched over Michael until she completed her shift. Already captivated by jazz, Mwenso took full advantage of the opportunity to interrogate masters like Benny Carter, Elvin Jones, Ray Brown, and Billy Higgins, who called him “the deep one.”
At 12, Mwenso began working as a trombonist and sometime singer. At 14, he met Wynton Marsalis, who befriended him and brought him into his orbit. At 15, he met James Brown, who was so impressed by Mwenso’s moves that he allotted space for the teenager to sing, dance, and blow at his London shows for several years. Meanwhile, Mwenso was honing his skills in jump bands, in reggae and Afrobeat horn sections, and at hard-bop sessions. At 22, he put down the trombone to focus on singing.
In 2007, he organized a late-night jam at Ronnie Scott’s that soon attracted the attention of London’s young and hip. Marsalis noticed, and in 2012 brought him to New York to serve as curator and programming associate at Jazz at Lincoln Center, with a mandate to book nightly after-hours sets at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola.
Over the next four years, Mwenso fulfilled that assignment, booking and performing with a cohort of high-ceiling 20-somethings like Cécile McLorin Salvant, Jon Batiste, Aaron Diehl, Sullivan Fortner, Emmet Cohen, and Jamison Ross. After gigs, Mwenso would round up his young charges for all-night listening sessions at various apartments, most recently the cozy Harlem flat of tap dancer Michela Marino Lerman. Mwenso keeps a room there, and band members convene to rehearse, cook, eat, imbibe, and talk.
On a steamy afternoon in late July, five weeks before the Shakes hit the road, I visited that apartment to speak with Mwenso, Lerman, Sotashe, and bassist Russell Hall. “Michael offered a unique platform where younger musicians could develop a sound together in a realistic, social context, and learn music of the older masters,” said Hall, a 24-year-old native of Kingston, Jamaica.
“On the bandstand, someone might call ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ or ‘Rosetta,’ someone else might play stride piano, or call a Cedar Walton tune that you’d learn while hanging out if you didn’t know it,” Hall continued. “Later, we’d listen to Prohibition songs about racy subject matter, or he’d try to teach me how to emulate Reginald Veal’s style of playing, or go deep into early New Orleans music, or Whitney Houston or Aretha Franklin. You didn’t even know you were learning, because it was informed by the music’s social nature.”
After his mentees spoke a while, Mwenso summed up the group’s mission statement. “We’ve figured out how to play funk grooves and African music in a way that still holds up the deepest elements of jazz and swing,” he said. “Joy is the human element of swing; jazz that isn’t joyful is just something else that’s happening. We’re trying to fulfill the spirit of Louis Armstrong and those people, we want to protect what they held up, and guard it and bow and give reverence to them—but also to be free within ourselves.
“To do that, you must have listened to at least a good amount of that music,” Mwenso mused. “Otherwise, you may be a great musician, but you won’t be free.”