Rosella Clemmons Washington
Lower Gwynedd, Pennsylvania
February 6, 2009
Singer Rosella Clemmons Washington lit up the stage with her deep sultry voice on a cold February night at Gwynedd-Mercy College in suburban Philadelphia. With her all-star Philly band, Washington sang and educated the audience of 300 attending this Black History Month event with the story of jazz and the inescapable influence of African-American music past and present. Joining her in the rhythm section were Harry "Butch" Reed on drums and Lee Smith on bass. In addition, John Swana traded in his trumpet on this night for the "EV"Electronic Valve Instrumentgiving the music a modern yet personal, beautiful sound.
Finally, Aaron Graves rounded out the group on piano and keyboard, not only showing that he is a fine accompanist and spirited section player but an exciting soloist as well. Local musicians they may have been, but the audience soon found out that this was truly an all-star lineup.
Opening with a number demonstrating each instrumentalist's talent, Washington next took the stage as our "guide" through an historical tour of black music and its influence on American music. Starting with a "refreshened" version of "He Shall Feed His Flock" from Handel's Messiah in jazz rhythmic style, she then moved a spiritual followed by a Brazilian tune that proved informative while leaving the audience wanting more of her deep, expressive voice. Her response was to challenge her band members to create a jazz version of a familiar country tune, Buck Owens' Hee Haw rant "Where, Oh Where, Are You Tonight?" A silly tune, perhaps, but one that was magically turned into a jazz love song by the featured vocalist and her supportive musiciansanother fascinating if not unprecedented experience for the audience.
Washington's voice was never more resplendent nor infectious than on the soulful Etta James hit "At Last," which led to the audience rocking and clapping during the set closerMarvin Gaye's "What's Going On?" But by now the crowd was not about to let the singer and her musicians go easily, insistently crying out: "More!" Obligingly, Washington and her band returned to the stage and led the audience in a participatory version of the spiritual, "Amen!"
While Gwynedd-Mercy College is not known as a center for jazz, for one night it was the place to be in Philadelphia. Music professor Carol Evans was clearly happy about the concert, and her praise of Rosella Clemmons Washington's performance, a former classmate at Temple University, was no doubt expressive of everyone privileged to attend the event. This was the first time this group of musicians played together. Hopefully it won't be their last.