MUSIC | A nice guy gets a break: Wenso Ashby signs record deal, launches weekly gig


Good news: Wenso Ashby featuring Zsamé have recorded a limited-release 5-song EP, Live II, to go along with their new weekly engagement “The Urban Jazz Suite” at Favor Café in Minneapolis. More good news: producer-songwriter-pianist Ashby has signed with the Butterfly label and the first release is available in stores and online. Actually, that first release is a repackaging of Wenso Ashby featuring Zsamé’s Love Is So Amazing as After Dark. Though Ashby signed a solo deal, vocalist Zsamé and sax man Willie Moore are on board with him to record a fresh CD for Butterfly.

Live II, Ashby’s fourth outing—succeeding Love Is So Amazing, Wenso Ashby Live featuring Zsamé, and Midnite Walkin’—is laid back magic. Ashby’s never been crazy about doing covers, but he is head over heels for Zsamé’s heavenly vocalizing—and she digs doing covers. Hence, we get an adventurous rendition of the Crusaders’ hit “Street Life” showcasing her splendid voice and his artful arranging. There’s Sade’s “Taboo,” which gets flat-out hijacked. Seductive as the original is, when they do this song live (caught it on MTN’s cable show Spectator and went slack-jawed), you feel erogenous zones you never knew you had. The Ashby-penned “No Letting Go,” which originally appeared on, Love Is So Amazing, offers an inspired take on the ethereal standout; Ashby and Moore are virtually telepathic, trading airtight riffs. The rest of the band cooks on all burners as well: Deynn Hampton (vocals), Jesse Lopez (percussion), Kenneth Garnier (bass), Jess Pierce (drums), Pat Vogl (2nd keys). The whole thing was recorded last year at the Selby Avenue Summer Jazz Festival in St. Paul before a wildly appreciative crowd that, despite a drizzling overcast, refused to be denied.

For a time, Wenso was thoroughly disgusted with the Twin Cities club scene, fed up with its identifiably closed circuit and on the verge of throwing up his hands. It’s hard to blame him. You look at the most prestigious jazz venues and, except for out-of-town heavies, the same local names do all the headlining. As he was leaning toward returning to his East Coast roots, basing himself again in the Washington, D.C. market, there was a crack in what he calls a glass ceiling. “We were introduced to Bob Huber, president of Huber Entertainment, by Pat Lindquist last year,” Ashby recalls. “After listening to our CD, he loved it and decided to talk with me about a new label that he was starting.” Clearly, the conversations went well.

Among other frustrations, the Urban Jazz Suite had launched at a tailor-made site, Babalú, in Minneapolis’s Warehouse District. The location was great for drawing a crowd. The ambiance was perfect for keeping an audience and strengthening it, week to week. Before the venture barely got off the ground, though, club owner Terence Large folded his tent and overnight, Babalú winked out of existence. While considering relocating, Ashby decided to try his Urban Jazz Suite thing out at Favor Café. “I wanted to [have] a place where people can come on a consistent basis to find some urban jazz for the adult contemporary [audience]. People kept asking me where they can go to find some live music other than old school and traditional jazz, and I couldn’t tell them where.” He can now. The Urban Jazz Suite jumps off Thursday evenings at 7.

Indeed, there’s good news, more good news, and still better news: Wenso Ashby featuring Zsamé’s Live II EP, Butterfly’s signing Ashby, and his ruffled feathers being sufficiently smoothed that smooth-jazz lovers will still have this ace music man around, fostering a sublimely velvet vibe.

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

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