Music review: Afro-Blue and the Howard University Jazztet at Blues Alley

April 10, 2012

Howard University is one of the jazz world’s secret weapons. Its music program has launched such major players as Benny Golson and Geri Allen — and lately, a cappella ensemble Afro-Blue, which gained fame last fall on NBC’s competition “The Sing-Off.”

Afro-Blue — though not the same iteration from the TV show — participated in a showcase of Howard’s current jazz talent Monday night at Blues Alley.

The 90-minute set squeezed the vocal ensemble in with the six-piece instrumental HU Jazztet, along with a few solo singing performances. The Jazztet, led by pianist Sam Prather, offered four well-crafted original compositions, from bassist Eliot Seppa’s swinger “Ideas” to trumpeter Jared Bailey’s hip-hop-imbued “Lead Me On.” Bailey’s tune gave him his only solo, exhibiting a beautiful, understated vibrato sound that deserved much more time in the spotlight. Instead, the star soloists were Prather and guitarist Pete Muldoon — the latter with perhaps the most original sound, assembling delicate lines with a deceptively aggressive timbre and attack.

The solo vocals were by two of Afro-Blue’s female members: altos Rochelle Rice and Shacara Rogers. Rice’s two tunes wore a sweet, friendly persona that disguised a freewheeling rhythmic sense, unleashed in a smart, witty vocalese performance (complete with a nod to Beyonce) on her second song, “Good Bait.” Rogers did one solo tune, “Blowtop Blues,” but it was masterful: She began on a sultry simmer and built till she boiled with unbridled intensity, the blues becoming mean and dirty.

Rogers, in short, has star quality, and Afro-Blue (and their offstage honcho/arranger, Connaitre Miller) clearly knows it. While much of the group’s performance was dominated by the ensemble — four men and four women — Rogers took the lead on two of the four songs, including a solo on “Too Marvelous for Words” that was transcribed from an improvisation by trombonist J.J. Johnson. Rogers was a spicy counterpoint to the smoothness of the ensemble, which worked in tasteful, precise arrangements and complemented Rogers on “Too Marvelous for Words” with a soaring crescendo.

They saved the best for last, however, working out the Motown classic “Dancing in the Street” with the Jazztet’s Prather, Seppa, Muldoon and drummer Dante Pope rejoining them for a funky strut. Howard jazz means business.

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