The vocal group Afro Blue was founded (in 2002) by its director, Connaitre Miller, Jazz Voice Coordinator at Howard University in Washington, DC. Miller's approach to vocal jazz is patterned after that of such celebrated groups as Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the Manhattan Transfer and Take 6, a blueprint that has served Afro Blue well and led to numerous awards, locally and nationally, recognizing its excellence as a group and the primacy of its three previous recordings from 2013-15. We Shall Overcome
presents the ensemble circa 2017-19 in a series of bright and snappy arrangements that serve to amplify Afro Blue's already eminent reputation as one of the country's premier collegiate vocal jazz consortiums.
Miller's uncommon design is evident from the outset, as Afro Blue singsand scatsthe revered anthem "We Shall Overcome" as you've no doubt never heard it before, opening with a soulful New Orleans-style second line beat to back a trim vocal (and scat) by Ekep Nkwelle. She's soon joined by the ensemble, there's more scatting by Rickey Brown and a vibrant piano solo by Cyrus Chestnut
(hold on, by who?
could this be the
Cyrus Chestnut? the same pianist known and admired by jazz enthusiasts around the world?). Well, Chestnut is
from Baltimore, a stone's throw or two from DC, and he's the only Chestnut on the tree surnamed Cyrus who also plays jazz piano. So yes, that very well could be the man. Celebrity or not, Chestnut sits in on three of the first four numbers and is an absolute pleasure to hear.
Even without Chestnut, Afro Blue is on top of its game, thanks in part to seductive charts by Miller, Darmen Meader, Matt Catingub
, the late Geri Allen
and others that challenge the depth and aptitude of ensemble and soloists alike. Following "We Shall Overcome," Catingub takes the reins with a starkly sensual arrangement of Fats Waller
/ Andy Razaf's classic "Honeysuckle Rose" (another charming vocal by Nkwelle, a second by Indigo Passarriello). The ensemble shines on Burt Bacharach / Hal David's "What the World Needs Now," undergirding personable statements by Taylor Young, Myesha Henderson and Chestnut. Nkwelle and Chestnut share the spotlight on "The Sad Ones," a plaintive ballad with lyrics by Nkwelle adapted from saxophonist Buck Hill
's solo on his 1979 album, Scope.
Impulsive rhythms predominate on Jimmy Heath
's "Sassy Samba," arranged by Meader, luminous vocal effects on Stevie Wonder
's gossamer "Ribbon in the Sky." W.C. Handy
's venerable "St. Louis Blues" opens with a "wah-wah" group vocal leading to a delightful change in tempo and splendid solos by Nkwelle, Passarriello and bassist Eliot Seppa
, while Passarriello's "Hands Up, Don't Shoot" is a lament by Afro Blue's Soul Sistas mourning the too-often needless loss of black lives at the hands of police officers. Jazmine Thomas wrote and solos on the visionary, Gospel-centered "Heal Again," an ideal entrée to the album's "doctrinal" section, epitomized by its last two numbers, Allen's handsome arrangement of the carol "We Three Kings" and Miller / Naomi Crellin's warm-hearted version of "His Eye Is on the Sparrow" (superb work, as always, by the group, radiant lyric courtesy of Kayla Wheeler).
As vocal groups go, Afro Blue has to be at or near the top of anyone's list. And there's no doubt it is enunciating jazz, albeit jazz of a slightly uncommon variety. But no matter its guise or purpose, the music speaks for itself, and its rating rests on individual and collective excellence (although the presence of Cyrus Chestnut certainly doesn't harm the cause).
We Shall Overcome; Honeysuckle Rose; Love; The Sad Ones; Sassy Samba; Ribbon in the Sky; St. Louis Blues; Hands Up, Don’t Shoot; Heal Again; We Three Kings; His Eye Is on the Sparrow.
Jillian Willis: vocalist; Taylor Young: vocalist; Marissa Zedhinato: vocalist; Cyrus Chestnut: piano; Michael Bowie: electric bass; Eliot Seppa: acoustic bass, electric bass; Kelton Norris: drums; Samuel Prather: drums; Tom Teasley: percussion.