OXFORD – Harlem-based jazz band Michael Mwenso and The Shakes highlighted Oxford’s Summer Music Festival on Thursday, July 21. The concert was presented thanks to a collaboration between the Oxford Visitor Bureau and Miami University’s Performing Arts Series.
The Shakes are the only band to play at this season’s music festival which is not Ohio-based.
Band manager Jono Gasparro is actually a Miami alum who used to work for the Performing Arts Series. It was this connection to the art series which guaranteed Mwenso’s place in the summer lineup, but it wasn’t until Director Patti Liberatore, who is part of the committee which chooses the summer music performers, went to New York for a conference that they became aware of Mwenso. From there the collaboration fell into place.
The Shakes happen to be an interchangeable “family of musicians.” There are many members, but like a family, at one event not all are necessarily present. There are three-to-five vocalists (including Mwenso himself, Brianna Thomas, Charenee Wade, and Vuyo Sotashe), drummers Joe Saylor and Jamison Ross, pianist Chris Pattishall, trumpeters Alphonso Horne and Bruce Harris, and tenor Saxophonist Tivon Pennicott. There are also other musicians who sometimes play with The Shakes (including singer Cecile McLorin Salvant, and pianists Jonathan Batiste, Aaron Diehl and Sullivan Fortner).
Mwenso noted, “We call it “The Village,” we call it The Family — but it’s a village.”
They call different players for different gigs. One of those players is drummer Ross. Mwenso admitted, “Jamison Ross is one of the greatest drummers, musicians, in the world – he’s the drummer. He just had an album nominated for a Grammy, for jazz album.” Ross doesn’t live in New York, so the Shakes don’t get to always play with him, but when they do it’s a treat.
Mwenso was born in 1984 in Freetown, Sierra Leone in West Africa, but he moved to London when he was 10 due to his mother’s marriage. By the age of 13, he had mastered the piano and trombone and was touring with a swing band. He started visiting Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club (where he would start working 10 years later) and got to meet many of the greats – from Elvin Jones to Johnny Griffin, and many in between. He even worked with James Brown – dancing and singing with the famous performer at UK engagements.
“I would go to the gigs and stalk the people. I didn’t stalk James Brown, but I went after him, and after about two or three years I was able to get him,” Mwenso said of getting the opportunity to work with the legend.
This was all before he had turned 17.
Mwenso’s musical influences range from jazz, to reggae and Afrobeat, to bebop and scat, the blues, and Black American folk music. “We play the landscape of Afro-American music,” he summarized. He considers their music a reflection of how music developed.
“We like to do the past, the present, and the future,” he noted. “We’re going to pay respect to the ancestors, the present is we’re going to play some of my original music, the future is we never know what’s going to happen. We like to do all times within one time.”
Michael Mwenso and The Shakes was like no other performance Oxford has seen this season. On top of the mixture of different genres, was the performance aspect: to go along with the music, Mwenso and a tap dancer brought life to the audience, delivering a show the audience could dance to.
Mwenso isn’t your typical singer. He admitted sheepishly, “The band likes to call me ‘Conductor.’ That’s kinda what I am, I take part and I get to conduct.” Audience members could see him with one hand behind his back, doing just what his nickname says.
Unfortunately, the weather didn’t agree with the performance. The performers had to take a 45-minute break, but after the rain subsided the concert continued.
When asked what he wanted the audience to get out of his performance, Mwenso explained, “I hope they’re touched, I hope they’re uplifted. I hope they leave having more hope in the world. That’s what we try to do, we just try to lift people up and bring hope.”