Michael Mwenso of Mwenso & the Shakes discusses the importance of homage, spirituality and performance in jazz music


When people think of jazz, they may harken back to the era of the 1920s, of Prohibition, of “The Great Gatsby” and of the Harlem Renaissance. However, those who believe jazz to be solely a genre of the past have clearly not listened to the likes of Mwenso & the Shakes, the Harlem-based jazz band that is bringing an updated and fresh take to the legendary musical genre. 

Mwenso & the Shakes, led by bandleader and lead vocalist Michael Mwenso, formed around 2012, when Mwenso relocated to New York City to work as the curator and programming associate of Jazz at Lincoln Center.  

As part of his work with Lincoln Center, Mwenso booked nightly sets at Dizzy’s Club Coca Cola, through which he met a plethora of musicians hailing from all parts of the world, some of whom formed together to create the Shakes. The full lineup of Mwenso & the Shakes includes Mwenso as bandleader and on vocals, Vuyo Sotashe on vocals, Kyle Poole on drums, Gabe Schnider on guitar, Mathis Picard on piano and keys, Ruben Fox on tenor saxophone, Julian Lee on tenor saxophone, Russell Hall on bass and Michela Marino Lerman as the tap dancer. 

Mwenso himself had quite the multicultural and musical upbringing. He was born in Sierra Leone and raised in London, where he became entrenched in the jazz scene at a young age, playing at the legendary jazz club Ronnie Scott’s. At about 16 years old, Mwenso met with Wynton Marsalis, a fellow jazz musician. It was Marsalis who ultimately brought Mwenso to New York to work at Jazz at Lincoln. 

However, music had a spiritual impact on Mwenso from an even younger age.  

“My mother got married and we came to London, England. She married my stepfather, and he tragically died in a car crash when I was twelve years old,” Mwenso explained in regard to when music first made an impact on his life. “This was when music became a very strong spirit in my life; seeing my mom struggle and lose her husband, and seeing her go through different mental and spiritual struggles. I was an only child, and music became my brother and sister, in some way.” 

Despite being billed as a jazz band, Mwenso & the Shakes clearly take inspiration from a plethora of genres and styles, which is one of the reasons why listening to the band is always an exciting auditory experience.  

“I believe that we should love the whole history of music, and not segregate it. We should love all parts of jazz music and the trajectory of Afro-American music, and that is what you hear in the Shakes,” Mwenso said in regard to the genre-defying nature of the band. 

“[The Shakes] are trying to deal with three values: 1) To present the whole history of Afro-American music in a certain way, [including] root and folk music; 2) To have a spiritual message that deals with overcoming and believing in yourself, and knowing that God is within you, and knowing the power that you have to take the time and be aware of who you are; and 3) To be able to present a show that deals with vaudeville cabaret and theatrical presentations,” Mwenso said. 

The musical process behind Mwenso & the Shakes is organic and creative, using improvisation to create all of their tracks.  

“We deal with themes first,” Mwenso said about the band’s songwriting process. “Take a song like ‘No Regrets’: when we first started doing that I would tell the band, it’s like a march. Then there’s a second part where we go to a Middle Eastern energy. So we kind of speak in those terms. We talk about it like the sounds in a sense of reflection of the world.” 

“Everything we play we’ve learnt orally; none of it is written down. So all of this music we’ve learnt we did from hearing it in our heads and ingraining it in a certain way. For us that is the purest way of learning music, so your ears are trained and so you have the folkloric understanding of the music that has been passed down from generation to generation, and through ears and mind and spirit,” Mwenso said.  

This live and improvisational energy transferred over into “Emergence,” the band’s debut album. Every track except for one was recorded from a live show at Creative Alliance in Baltimore.  

“We have been bred in the university of playing live; we’re live performing artists, and believe in performing the art and performing the music in a certain way, so you’re dealing with it both physically and spiritually,” Mwenso said. 

“The studio education is something that as jazz musicians and live performers in this particular time, we’re not trained at,” Mwenso said. “For us, we still need to really study [the process] of playing in the studio and getting the feel of how we play live in the studio.” 

The choice to record at Creative Alliance in Baltimore was no mere coincidence.  

“We’ve cultivated an audience [at Creative Alliance] that every time we come back, they love us. So we just decided to record it in a place where, on the record you can hear that the audience is hearing the music; we also wanted to document people just hearing the music in that way,” Mwenso said. “When we’re playing jazz and swinging hard, you can hear people screaming and hollering and stuff like that. It’s important for us that people can hear that this is still what the music does to people, this is still what jazz does to people.” 

Mwenso & the Shakes are taking their palpable live energy back on the road with their 32-city “Harlem 100” tour, set to begin in Louisiana and end out in California. The band will be playing right here at Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts on Saturday, Oct. 26. 

“The idea [of the “Harlem 100” tour] came from our manager, Jono Gasparro,” Mwenso said. “This is the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance and the Harlem Hellfighters, and it just so happened to be that Mwenso & the Shakes have been playing this music for a number of years.” 

The tour will pay homage to the many great artists and musicians of the Harlem Renaissance, including Fats Waller, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday and more.  

“It’s an incredible feat for us to be out here for as short as we have, about five years, and have the ability to play at all these art centers all over the country. We’re very privileged and very fortunate to have this opportunity. This is music that we have been playing for quite a while and love, and felt that the world should hear it. So we’re very grateful that we’ll be able to play this music in a certain way,” Mwenso said in regard to the upcoming tour. 

In terms of what Mwenso hopes for both current and future audiences to take away from the band’s music, the answer is simple yet complex. “I want them to take away a deeper understanding of what the music meant for people; how black people created this, and how sophisticated, refined and intelligent black people were that they created this body of work,” Mwenso said. 

“[This body of work] that went from Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong and Billie Holiday and Ray Charles and Sam Cooke and James Brown and Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder. I want [the audience] to understand how deep and how important it is to be enriched by that body of work, and how important it is for you to actually know who these people were,” Mwenso said.  

Get tickets to see Mwenso & the Shakes at Jorgensen on Saturday, Oct. 26 here: http://mwensoandshakes.com/tour 

Thumbnail photo courtesy of @mwensoandtheshakes Instagram.

Lucie Turkel is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at lucie.turkel@uconn.edu.

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