MUSIC | Mixed blessings with Wenso Ashby and Willie Moore at Babalú

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Talk about a night of mixed blessings. I showed up last month at Babalú, in the Minneapolis Warehouse District, to catch Wenso Ashby featuring Zsamé. Except it didn’t: feature Zsamé, that is. The illustrious lady of song for some reason wasn’t going to be there. What the hell? I buckled up and decided to see the glass as half-full. I’d still catch me some Wenso Ashby and, for the first time, see his henchman—ace sax player Willie Moore—in action. Ashby had extolled Moore’s abilities to the point where I was ready to see Moore just to keep Ashby from bending my ear about him anymore.

Willie Moore: A player who earns his ham

When I first started covering Wenso Ashby, he couldn’t put saxophonist Willie Moore’s name into our conversations enough times. Having caught Willie Moore live, I now understand why. Fine as his chops are, he’s also got that intangible that turns great musicians into fascinating entertainers. I caught the amazing Mr. Moore just before Babalú, formerly the coolest club in Minneapolis’ Warehouse District, closed. Zsamé wasn’t at the gig. Wenso was back behind his keyboard. Willie Moore was life to carry the front. He burned.

Performers don’t get much interestinger. He hams it up so heavy, all you need is cheese and bread and you got a picnic’s worth of sandwiches. It doesn’t take long, though, to realize that he gets away with being a ham because he is absolutely hellified on the sax. The cat prances and dances like he’s tip-toeing through Tiny Tim’s tulips—and at the same time, wields a subtle touch that amounts to wizardry. You can get a good helping of it on Ashby’s newest album Love Is So Amazing.

Moore was with Wenso Ashby featuring Zsamé for their recent appearance on Spectator (MTN-Ch. 17), for this summer’s Selby JazzFest, and will be there New Year’s Eve when they play The Zuhrah Shrine Center. Stop in. Odds are you’ll like this guy.

So much for optimism. I saddled up to the bar for my usual: a nice stiff double-jack-rocks. I waited. And waited. And waited some more. At length, my order was filled—so to speak. If it wasn’t watered down, all I can say is it was the weakest double-jack-rocks I’ve ever tried to get a kick out of. Wonderful. The place has all the sensually laid-back ambience you could want, and drinks that wouldn’t get a mouse drunk. The worst thing, though: later on I was thirsty and asked for water. The bartender grabbed a used glass, one a waitress had just brought back, filled that and handed it to me. I decided to go thirsty.

The oddest mixed blessing of all turned out to be the music itself. Thoroughly nonplussed, I sat down to check out Wenso Ashby without no Zsamé. Last time I caught them, she did a rendition of Toni Braxton’s “Another Sad Love Song” that raised hair on the back of my neck. She hit that heartrending bridge with such power, I’m surprised it didn’t hit her back. So. No Zsamé. Incredible as the lady’s chops are, the flip side is that Wenso Ashby got to show another side of his thing with the instruments coming up front—and set the house on fire. It was Wenso Ashby on keys and Willie Moore on sax with Kenneth Garnier (bass), Jesse Lopez (percussion), Wendell Henry (drums), and Brian Nichols (second keys), plus a guest appearance by Keith Porter (a.k.a. Father Time) on keys. For the last set Deynn Hampton, who sings backup for Wenso Ashby from time to time, stepped to the mic and wore the pure hell out of Floetry’s “Late.”

Wenso Ashby is at the Zuhrah Shrine Center, 2540 Park Ave. in Minneapolis on New Year’s Eve. For particulars: www. myspace.com/wensoashby.

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