There is a saying that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but that doesn’t mean to say that a relative pup can’t revel in the sounds and sentiments of yesteryear.
Mind you, this “pup” in question has been around the musical block a few times.
Michael Mwenso who, when asked his age, responded with “You can say I’m in my late 20s,” is the star of the next installment of the Hot Jazz series. During his national tour here, the American-British vocalist will offer a definitively entertaining program of jazz numbers to audiences in Rehovot, Herzliya, Modi’in, Tel Aviv and Haifa between December 6 and 13. The Mwenso program goes by the title “Bing Crosby – The New York of the ‘30s.”
Mwenso has done his fair share of Pond hopping, dividing his working time between London and New York. He earns part of his crust as host of Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola’s Late Night Sessions at the Lincoln Center in New York, while in Britain he can frequently be found at the legendary Ronnie Scott’s jazz club in London’s Soho district.
Considering that Mwenso was not even born during Bing Crosby’s heyday, what draws the young singer to what is considered the Golden Age of jazz? “That particular period in time of jazz music in the 1920s and ‘30s is particularly special,” he notes. “I think it was the one time in the history of the world when everyone was actually listening to jazz.”
If you’ve ever heard some of the greats acts of the Swing era of jazz – such as clarinetist and band leader Benny Goodman and other seminal instrumentalists and band leaders like Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Cab Calloway and Glenn Miller – you will know that it’s not hard to get swept away by the vibes of the joyous highenergy output. It all sounds like great fun for the musicians, too, but Mwenso notes that the purveyors of the art form of yesteryear had to put in a lot of effort to get their performance to sound so seamless and effortless.
“Out of all the different styles of jazz, the music of that time is probably the hardest to deal with because it really reflects the time, and it has very unique subtleties and nuances that you have to learn. The music is very complex compared to other styles of jazz. It is very tight, and there are a lot of things going on in it,” says Mwenso.
While a great fan of Crosby’s velvety vocals, Mwenso also digs the sounds of other leading lights of those halcyon jazz times, such as insouciant pianist-vocalist Fats Waller and ever-smiling trumpeter-vocalist Louis Armstrong. But rather than taking a retro time lapse view of jazz, Mwenso believes strongly that digging into blasts from the past can also guide the way forward.
“As you go deeper into jazz music, it actually brings you into the future,” he posits. “Checking out the music of the 1920s and ‘30s gives you an opportunity to almost do some time traveling, and I enjoy that.”
Mwenso feels that if you know where you are coming from, it can help you to know where you’re at.
“The further you go back in time, it brings you closer to understanding who you are in the present. If you go back and check out Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Fats Waller and all those incredible artistes of that time, it gives you the ability to understand how the music got to where it is in this time. That gives you a holistic value of what music is,” he says.
Mwenso was born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and began singing and playing piano at age 11, a year after moving to London. He also learned to play the trombone.
Jazz singers often talk about trying to emulate the sound of some instrument or other, while the latter try to make their instrument “sing.”
Mwenso says his instrumental background informs the way he goes about vocalizing.
“Having played the piano gives you a greater insight into understanding how to sing, in the sense that the things you want to say in terms of chords, movement or progression, give you a deeper understanding and more freedom to express yourself as a musician. But most musicians are trying to get their instruments to sing, to sound like the voice, so the singer really is king,” he says.
One singer on whom most people would confer the title of royalty is James Brown, often called the King of Soul. Mwenso had a life-changing encounter with the iconic singer and performer at a young age.
“When I was 12, I was very fortunate to meet him in London and develop a relationship with him that lasted a few years,” recalls Mwenso. “That was a great experience to be around that kind of music. I was fortunate enough to be around all kinds of great jazz musicians, but it was also very good to be on that side of the business, too. I could see how he was as an older man and to see how he did his thing because he did his thing in a very different way from a jazz musician.”
Brown was a performer par excellence, churning out kilowatts of energy as he careened his way through his shows, leaving his audiences intoxicated with his unadulterated, seemingly happy-golucky outpourings. Mind you, some of the aforementioned jazz masters such Gillespie, Armstrong and Waller also put out generous dosages of positive vibes.
We should get plenty of that from Mwenso tomorrow evening. The singer will be joined on stage by American pianist Chris Pattishall, with Israeli saxophonist Amit Friedman and fellow locals bassist Assaf Hakimi and drummer Shai Zelman to help keep things cooking.
“James Brown came from an era when musicians played for the people, no matter whether they were sick or anything else,” says Mwenso. “For him and for the jazz guys from back then, it was all about the people and giving them a show.”For tickets and more information: Rehovot (08) 946-7890 or (08) 668- 3881/2; Herzliya 1-700-500-39;Modi’in 1-700-500-39 or (08) 973-7333;Tel Aviv 1-700-500- 39 or (03) 573-3001; and Haifa 1-700-500-39 or (04) 822-7850