Interview: Smooth jazzers Wenso Ashby and Zsamé


There could be no better fit than Wenso Ashby featuring Zsamé to play St. Paul’s vaunted Selby JazzFest—lovers of mellow music would do well to be in attendance. The Twin Cities have seen the recent loss of two smooth jazz radio stations, and no one has stepped into the breach to rectify this situation. So a healthy audience, left with nowhere to turn on their radio dials, needs to grab every available opportunity to listen to artists this gifted.

Selby Avenue JazzFest: More than just another festival

With financial times being so tough, more than a few annual festivals haven’t made it back this summer. Fortunately, the seventh annual Selby Avenue JazzFest didn’t fall casualty and will take place Saturday, September 13th from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. in St. Paul at the corner of Milton and Selby, right near the Golden Thyme Café.

It’s more, actually, than just another festival. You always can hear good jazz all over the Twin Cities, but this festival is a community fixture for which folks get together in the intimacy of a small neighborhood—keeping up on friendships, making new ones, sustaining that family connection, and, in general, feeling a bit better about life than usual. Nice place to take the family. Golden Thyme owner Mychael Wright, nicknamed “Father of the Fest,” calls it “the biggest backyard party in St. Paul.”

Headlining his year is former Lionel Hampton protégé and celebrated keyboardist Jason “Malletman” Taylor. Supporting are the John Raymond Project, Salsa del Soul with Chai, Dick and Jane’s Brass Band, and a pair of this writer’s favorites: the Yohannes Tona Band and Wenso Ashby featuring Zsamé.

Composer, producer and keyboard man Wenso Ashby is one of the best at what he does, creating a lush tapestry of sound that, at times, is nothing short of spellbinding—especially when front lady, singer-songsmith Zsamé is at the microphone on splendid vocals. There are three albums: Midnite Walkin’, Wenso Ashby Live, featuring Zsamé, Q’Aisha, and TaVanni, and the newly released Love Is So Amazing, featuring Zsamé. You can’t wrong with any of them and, indeed, are apt to sooner or later end up owning them all if getting locked into a sweet, laid back groove is your thing. September 13, the Selby Avenue JazzFest is at the intersection of Selby and Milton, right outside Golden Thyme Coffee Café. The festival starts at 11 a.m. and goes until 6 in the evening.

How did your musical partnership come to be?
Wenso Ashby: I came here from D.C. on a visit and was listening to the radio. I didn’t know who she was, but I loved the voice. I called the station [but] couldn’t connect with her. A year later, I came back. Somebody told her I was in town, looking for a vocalist, so I met with her.
Zsamé: I wasn’t singing at the point—just goin’ to work, goin’ home. Daily grind.
Ashby: We talked. She listened to [my] CD and liked it. Later, we went out to a [rehearsal] area. I asked to do some runs, and she did it a cappella. On the spot. I was like, wow. I immediately said, “I’m gonna stay here.” We started working together. Now, it’s four years later.

Each of you easily could go solo. Why stay hooked up?
Ashby: If you look at the [new] album, it features Zsamé and it features the saxophone player Willie Moore. Production is what I really love to do—to stay in the background.
Zsamé: I always felt the music. It’s funny, because [earlier] I’d been doing vocals for a local hip-hop group, recording at Flyte Time, but when I looked at my music collection, I owned mostly smooth jazz, R&B, soul music. That was the music I was feelin’. This was the opportunity, when I started performing with Wenso, to [be] in my comfort zone.

“This was the opportunity, when I started performing with Wenso, to be in my comfort zone.”

You write for the ensemble?
Zsamé: I do. And for the live CD, it’s actually kind of funny. When we first met, he brought over this music and wanted me to write words for some of the songs [in the vein] he had in mind when he wrote the music. When I brought [them] back, it was totally different.
Ashby: Than the way I wrote it.
Zsamé: So, he always jokes about that. “Just like a woman. It came back totally different from the way I gave it to her.” But, you know, I have my own originality within what we’re doing—even when we’re doing covers.
Ashby: She can capture the essence of any song. If she hears it, she can capture it.

How is it performing together onstage?
Ashby: We do the songs over and over, but each performance is a little different. That’s where the intuitive stuff comes in. She’ll go off and do something. Willie will do something. You know how it is. The words may be the same, but the way you feel changes. Each time she sings, it’s a new spark. So, I’m always, “What can I do to enhance that?” I never get tired of hearin’ what she does.

You also have another singer on board.
Zsamé: Deynn Hampton. She does background vocals.
Ashby: She could be an individual artist, too. The thing that works for us as a group is that everybody’s willing to come in and, like Boston [the NBA Celtics] did this year in basketball? All them people, stars, but they put their personal games aside to be a team. I just say here’s the song, here’s the concept, let’s go and do this.

Dwight Hobbes is a writer based in the Twin Cities. He contributes regularly to the Daily Planet.