Musical theater met Kahil El’Zabar & Co.'s jazz in perfect harmony at Encore


Kahil El‘Zabar and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble on stage with singers from the Encore Musical Theatre, February 18, 2022

Kahil El‘Zabar and the Ethnic Heritage Ensemble on stage with singers from the Encore Musical Theatre, February 18, 2022. Photo courtesy of Encore.

The “great American songbook” and jazz have always had a strong relationship. Popular songs have been an important source for jazz improvisation from the very beginning and jazz has influenced popular music composers to adapt dynamic rhythms, blue notes, and the uptempo style of the emerging jazz players of the 1920s.

The Encore Theater is celebrating Black heritage with an exciting pair of musical reviews this month. On February 18, a program called Modern Jazz Meets Musical Theater made a strong case that the popular music of the golden age from the 1920s to the 1950s was a collaboration of a diverse group of performers and composers that is still rich and vibrant today. Many of those who created the American Songbook were first-generation immigrants from Europe and Black Americans who found a common voice.

The man making that case is, as the Encore program says, the legendary Kahil El’Zabar, an inspired percussionist, driving band leader, and wise teacher. El‘Zabar and his Ethnic Heritage Ensemble joined forces with four superb singers to give us a sampling of show tunes, blues, and pop standards in a smokey setting on the Encore stage. Each song segued from vocalist and band to rich, lively, thought-provoking jazz improvisations on the music and then rounded back to the singers.

The Chicago-based El’Zabar pointed to the influence of Louis Armstrong, whose dazzling improvisations changed the way composers wrote music and singers sang and made jazz, in the form of swing, the most popular music around the world then. Gershwin, Porter, Rodgers, Berlin, Arlen, Ellington, Waller, and many more turned to jazz for inspiration.

The band opened up with a set that introduced the musicians. El’Zabar’s thumb piano set the rhythms in motion for Alex Harding on a bracing and rumbling baritone sax; Corey Wilkes on a high, sweet trumpet; Miguel De La Cerna on keyboards, and Emma Dayhuff on bass, who provided a steady beat and was an imaginative soloist.

El’Zabar played host explaining the format and introducing each singer as they performed. El’Zabar is a superb musician, whether he’s setting the beat on a drum kit or finding rhythms in thumb piano, a briefcase, or sticks, he kept the music moving.

The first singer up had some jazz surprises for the audience. Those expecting a musical theater voice were about to be amazed by the unusual, emotionally engrossing, and richly improvisational voice of Dwight Trible. Trible opened the singing portion of the show with a jazz-rich rendition of "My Funny Valentine" that is miles away from Chet Baker’s jazz version of the Rodgers and Hart song. Trible uses his voice as an instrument. He bends letters and words into notes, he moves from long moans to short jabs. At first, it seemed a little off-putting, because Baker’s version is in your head, but soon the overwhelming emotion won you over. He was deeply in sync with the band, which understands exactly what he’s doing. Later he offered up a spiritual cry and, best of all, a heartbreaking rendition of Gershwin’s "Summertime," in which Trible used his expressive voice to ponder over the deeper implications of a not-so-simple song.

But this show was also about the musical-theater voice as presented by one of Encore’s star performers, Jessica Grovè, a veteran of Broadway and touring productions. She brought a big, soaring voice to "Some Enchanted Evening." With the band playing behind and then in the break. De La Cerna built on Rodgers' tune, followed by improvs by Harding and Wilkes, then back to Grovè. She delivered again with a heartfelt rendering of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." But the standout was a teasing, sexy offering of Kander and Ebb’s "All That Jazz," with the band and the audience deeply engaged and amused.

Jason Briggs brought a big body and a big warm voice to "All the Things You Are" and, also a big sense of humor to Fats Waller’s "Viper" (the reefer song). Briggs had fun with the fantasy of a foot-long reefer and the band respondeded by playing with Waller’s playful music, an inspiration to several generations of musicians.

Rounding out the singing was Arielle Crosby. She offered up a sassy, no surrender version of "Cry Me a River," made famous by Julie London. Crosby found the humor as well as the anger in the song’s lyrics and grooved on the jazz accompaniment. Crosby and Briggs teamed up on a funny verbal duel of bickering lovers, playing off each other perfectly.

The concert ended with El’Zabar and Trible leading the band, singers, and audience in the king of jazz songs, "When the Saints Go Marching In."

Encore's celebration of Black Heritage continues on Feb. 24-27 with a tribute to the great Stevie Wonder with performances of some of Wonder’s modern standards "Living for the City," "You Are the Sunshine of My Life," "Superstition," and more. Briggs and Crosby will be performing in those shows.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

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