If you audition for a Thomas W. Jones II show with a standard tune from a Broadway musical, you may be told, “Great. Now, can you sing us something that’s not in that tradition? Because we won’t be doing that.”
Then, writer-director Jones explains, “you find out whether somebody really has jazz chops, or can sing rhythm and blues. If they can’t do it, this is not the place they should be working.”
“Shake Loose: A Musical Nights of Blues, Moods, & Icons,” premiering at Alexandria’s MetroStage, is a revue drawn from the wide range of songs Jones has written with longtime collaborators William Knowles (a jazz pianist) and William Hubbard (whose roots are in gospel). In various combinations, they’ve created about a dozen shows and roughly 350 songs since meeting during “Bessie’s Blues” at Studio Theatre in 1995, a show revived at MetroStage last year. The musical palette ranges from the searing blues and hip-hop of “Slam!” (a Jones-Knowles collaboration) to the gospel of “Three Sistahs” (Jones and Hubbard).
Their shows have become a staple at MetroStage, where Hubbard says producing artistic director Carolyn Griffin sometimes asks exactly how she should describe the music.
“It comes from the tradition of jazz,” says Jones, whose subjects have included Sammy Davis Jr. (“Cool Papa’s Party”), Frankie Lymon and Pearl Bailey. “And it’s got to sound like what it’s got to sound like. It’s not rhythm and blues tailored for the stage. It’s tailored for the club.”
“We come at music as music,” Knowles says. “It’s not an approximation. It’s the thing. I do theater half the year, and the other half of the year I’m out in the club, man. That’s how I make a living.”
The “Shake Loose” tunes cluster around Jones’s focus on 20th-century African American history, from the Great Migration and struggling for success to love ballads and a fascination with entertainment icons. A poet, playwright, lyricist and actor (he was in Woolly Mammoth’s “Cherokee” last year), Jones melds styles freely. He credits Knowles and Hubbard for their “vast musical vocabulary” as projects dig into, say, 1920s jazz, or 1990s rap and hip-hop and blues.
“You know they can get to the heart of what that is and still maintain their own musical voice,” Jones says.
“It’s ‘in the style of’, ” Knowles says simply. “It’s in the style of the 1960s, or Miles Davis. That’s the phrase.”
Knowles, 46, studied jazz at Howard University and then the University of Massachusetts, where he met bass player Mark Saltman; they have performed and recorded together as Saltman Knowles. Hubbard, 58, grew up on gospel: His grandmother played piano and organ at the same church for more than 50 years. Hubbard played piano by ear growing up, imitating licks from Stevie Wonder and Joe Sample and studying with gospel singer-pianist-composer Richard Smallwood, which gave him a firm grounding in music theory.
So who exactly is the audience for the shows these variously trained men write? Jones, who turns 60 this year and is based in Atlanta, thinks their constituency is unique: “People who say, ‘I know you don’t like theater, but I think you’re going to like this.’ ”
“I believe we are hybrid,” Hubbard says. “We are not married to the way someone has traditionally done it, or the way people say it is supposed to be done.”
The “Shake Loose” songs are being tailored for four singers and a sextet of instrumentalists, with Knowles at the piano. (Hubbard suffered a stroke in 2010 and has worked very little since then.) Assembling the right kind of talent was tricky for Jones when he first arrived from Atlanta to do “Bessie’s Blues” at Studio. During auditions, Jones wasn’t hearing the jazz, hip-hop or R&B skills he needed.
“I’m like, ‘This is D.C. There’s got to be some black people who can sing,’ ” he recalls. But then he found his way to the Howard University students of the late director-choreographer-teacher Mike Malone. “Oh! I knew they were here.”
Knowles signed on, but Hubbard couldn’t be part of that “Bessie” because of a scheduling conflict. “I had a wedding in the Bahamas, and I had to go,” he says as the trio explodes with laughter.
Are the songwriters surprised at how much material they’ve created since then? “You’re just working,” says Jones, who has war stories of projects that nearly hit it big, and others that never got off the ground.
“It’s a real practical drive,” Knowles says. “The cool thing about these gigs is we get to employ our friends. If you can think of something and package it right, then all of us get to eat.”
MetroStage, 1201 North Royal St., Alexandria. 703-548-9044. metrostage.org.
Dates: Through March 6.