Robert Mwamba at the Blues Alley Jazz Club, delights close to 180 fans By Ben Kangwa The best way to understand what Robert Mwamba does on his jazz guitar as composer and arranger is to think of him as a vocalist as good as Al Jarreaueven though Robert does not sing a note. His guitar play recently at the Blues Alley Jazz Club delighted close to 180 fans who turned out to watch him perform, showing all the perfect and precise technics one expects of a major guitarist who has been labeled the next George Benson. Playing at a club tucked down an alley off Wisconsin Street above the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal in Georgetown, less than four miles from the Zambian Embassy, the shows were a “one night”back to back – the first at 8.00pm to 9.30pm and the last one from 10.00pm to after midnight. All this happened on Tuesday 23rd July. The Blues Jazz Alley has been a premier stop for top jazz artistes from around the world for decades and claims to be the oldest continuing jazz supper club in the USA having been founded in 1965.
Jazz Guitarist – George Mwamba
The Blues Alley Jazz menu was “tailored to the occasion” with soups such as the “Jonathan Butler’s” seafood Gumbo, a mix of shrimps and chopped vegetables to appetizers such as the “Stanley Jordan” Potato Chesse. The salads included the “Pieces of a Dream” grilled chicken Ceaser while the entrees such as the “Sarah Vaughn’s” Fillet Mignon , a prime beef tender loin served with backed potato and vegetable of the day seemed to be a favourite on most tables.
Robert Mwamba and George Benson A further little background of the Blues Alley is that over the years, some of the top jazz artistes that have performed there include, Grover Washington Jr, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, Charlie Byrd, Tony Bennet, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald, Earl Klugh, Lee Ritenour, Kenny G, David Sanborn, Najee, drummer Jimmy Cob and Joe Sample. Hugh Masekela recorded his “Hope” album ‘live’ in 1993. Others who have paid homage include Jonathan Butler and Andre Manga from Cameroon . For this reason, I just could not miss the opportunity of joining the many Zambians from Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC (DMV) who had come to listen to
one of Zambia’s best jazz guitarist since the days of BestinMwanza of the Big Gold Six Band, George Mulauzi of the Directions, Isaac Mpofu of the Heathen Band and of course Hubert Ng’ambi who basically used to be a solo guitarist.
from Lt to Rt Don, Robert, Angela, Bruno and Sipho at the Blues Jazz Alley Seating was organized on a first come first seat basis, but I had made areservation much earlier during the day and therefore was fortunate enough to find myself seated very close to the stage enabling me vantage view to capture the experience, the emotions, the expressions and harmony created by Robert and Friends. Once seated, my dinner order was taken and for about 20 minutes I could hear the entire room engaged in table to table conversations. A couple of Zambians asked me who Robert Mwamba is in Zambian Jazz circles, who he has performed with and where he has performed before? Well, I had done a background check in good time. Upon learning about Mwamba’s “gig” at the Alley, I had made contact with him through George
Kabwe of the International Monetary Fund, Jay Mwamba my old time journalist friend and Zambia’s songbird Muriel Mwamba both based in New York. Fifteen minutes before the stage was open was enough for me to explain to an already “jazzed up” lady that Robert who holds a degree in Finance and Economics from Bernard Baruch College in New York first spent years in Management and Investments in Corporate America working at the Bank of America whilst at the same time studying music at the American Institute of Guitar. Mwamba was schooled by legendary bassist Milt Hinton and jazz instructor Peter Mazza as well as legendary jazz guitarist Rodney Jones who has performed with George Benson on many occasions. To his credit, he has performed before United States of America President Barack Obama, Secretary Generals of the United Nations Ban Ki Moon and Kofi Annan respectively. Others are British Billionaire and founder of the Virgin Group, Sir REichard Branson, Oscar Winning Acress Mira Sorvino and Hip Hop Mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs. Before Mwamba walked to the stage the invisible Master of Ceremony who most of us could notsee heard him through the microphone listing a set of house rules as follows,” Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Blues Alley Jazz Club home of Jazz in Washington DC. We are happy you could join us tonight to listen to Robert Mwamba from New York. I urge you to switch off your phones or put them on silence while the show is on. I also request that you do not take photographs or record any video by camera or by phone during the show. Lastly, there will be no stepping to the stage while the band is playing. Thank you.” The lights were then dimmed low and the beautiful red burnt brick backdrop just set everybody in the mood for jazz. One by one, the organist and keyboard player Don Militelo from New York followed by the drummer South African born Sipho Kunene and behind him bass guitarist from Madagascar Bruno Razfindrakoto walked to the stage and took position. The MC then introduced the star of the night Robert. Mwamba walked to the stage dressed in a maroon shirt and khaki pants, he simply looked a polished musician and set for the night. From the first tune to the encore, the audience clapped in appreciationand quickly grew silent, making listening to the performance very enjoyable. The sound system in the Club was great.
The guitar playing sounded more like George Benson melodically inspired tearing through up-tempo pieces in surprising contour phrases. The instrumentation was basically reminiscent of other musicians such as Norman Brown, Jimmy Dludlu, Larry Coryel, Lee Ritenour, Peter White, Larry Carlton and Ronnie Jordan just to mention a few. He then introduced “Coastin’” his maintrack on his debut album coming out in September expressing the extreme possibilities of a guitar in jazz. His instrumental version of “Stop On By” written by Bobby Womack and sung by Rufus was just out of this world! Interestingly, he had posted on facebook that he would play it in tribute to yet another good friend of mine EdemDjokotoe. Apparently Edem introduced Robert to that song years back. Later Robert was to call to the stage one of Washington’s finest jazz diva Angela Stribling, a lady of many talents known for her career on Black Entertainment Television (BET) who was also an integral part of launching BET Jazz. Joined by the band, she first sung a 1960 song by jazz lady Etta Jones entitled “Don’t Go With Strangers”. She sung it like it was original with that far-away look and with a feeling leaving the audience swaying from side to side and nodding their heads in great appreciation. She followed it up with one of my favourite blues song “Some oneelse Steppin’ in” by Buddy Guy. There was intermittent clapping and foot-stomping – a sign that she had delivered. Mwamba once again unveiled new compositionstowards the end of his first act with a gorgeous impressionistic solo pianist Don Militello whose quick sense of fingers reaffirmed his position to the audience as a distinctive pianist and organist. Had Mwamba monopolized center stage all night, his guitar play might have grown a little tiresome, but he gave the rest of his band ample exposure. Each member of the band took turns showcasing their talents. This got everbody on a no-stop clapping mode. If it moved them, it was like dancing! As the first act ended, I was left with happiness that a new Zambian jazz guitarist was on his way to the top in a few years to come given the exposure and tutelage he has had from some of the best teachers in Jazz music. As the saying goes in Washington DC,” Once you hit the Blues Alley, there’s no going back. You are destined for the top.”