Piano maestro returns with a smooth homage to jazz greats

Photo courtesy of Wenso Ashby Courtesy of Wenso Ashby

Mellow maestro, smooth jazz keyboardist-producer Wenso Ashby’s new album is Artistry, paying homage to, among other jazz masters, Joe Sample and Duke Ellington. In a modest setting, the collection showcases this internationally accomplished veteran on such lush offerings as Signature and “Midnite Walkin,’ piano backed on bass by guests Charles Hayes, Julius Walker and Duane Smith.

No one ever accused Ashby of hiding behind production values. Still, it’s a treat to enjoy him forgo sweetening, bringing sounds, stripped, as it were, to the bare bones.

“Ode to Joe,” for instance, is elemental and exquisite, strutting sweet stuff from funk to R&B and back with Ashby’s trademark of bridging styles in his own jazz bag. “One More Time” haunts, as an elegant tour de force segueing between bittersweet moods and contemplative frames of mind.

Suffice to say, Ashby is still hard at work bringing easy listening to the ears of audiences who like their music cool.

Ashby has mapped out and established a presence of consequence by utilizing that universal game-changer: Internet sales. He even found himself sending an autographed Signature CD to a fan in Madrid. After a long layoff from performing, audiences welcomed him back at Mears Park on May 23, and he has another show on Aug. 15.

Talking shop at Maria’s Café in South Minneapolis, Ashby discussed his craft and career. An excerpt of that conversation appears below.

Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder (MSR):  Not to take anything from you, but you broke out as Wenso Ashby featuring Zsamé on incredible vocals. From previous solo joints and now Artistry, fans couldn’t be faulted for protesting your concert and club dates, shouting, “Zsamé! Zsamé!”

Wenso Ashby (WA): When you have someone great as she is and life circumstances happen — Zsamé suffered a personal loss — there’s really not much you can do. We’re still connected. I look at playing instrumentals as another side of me. Zsamé will always be there. When she’s ready, I’m ready.

MSR: I remember watching you with her and sax man Willie Moore on Spectator. Watching you watch them, like some sort of mastermind. You laid back in the cut, but it was clear you were in control.

WA: The approach is that of some of the cats before [like] Joe Sample, Herbie Hancock. Before playing they listen to every instrument. I see how I can add flavor, from a producer’s standpoint, not so much as a player.

MSR: What do you think about other cats, for instance, Ramsey Lewis and Booker T?

WA:  Funny story about Ramsey; I was mad because I came to see him at Orchestra Hall and he played only the grand [piano]. I kept waiting for a song he never played. This is before I knew his classical side.

His keyboard player told me you never know what [Lewis] might play. I’m no longer mad because he played “Sun Goddess” at the Dakota. Booker T is unbelievable; one of the greats, but a little too much on the blues side for me.

MSR:  “One More Time” is deep. Has kind of a Bobby Womack feel.

WA:  No, that’s Motown, and you’ll see once there’s vocals on it. It’s an interlude, more of mood changer for a minute. With the piano, there’s so many directions you can go, ‘cause you got access to everything.

With Artistry, I wanted to paint that full canvas. So, I tried to do as many influences as I have and incorporate it into my own personal style. That’s what that was.

MSR: I’ve never heard you go this far off the beaten track. My ears went straight up. Actually, on the title track, there’s no bass credit. Was that you doing it with the left hand?

WA:  Yeah.

MSR: Has dynamite feel to it. You also work with different artists?

WA:  There’s a crew I call BTN, Beneath the Snow and it’s only the weather. There’s a lot of hidden talent in the Twin Cities that doesn’t get the opportunity for outlets and venues to showcase. I want to showcase some of that talent. Including Lady Z.


Hear Wenso Ashby showcase his talent at Bella Luna at the Wolf House in Minneapolis on June 23 at 7 pm. He will also be featured as part of “Music in the Parks” series at Mears Park in St. Paul on Aug. 15 at noon, and Lake Harriet Bandshell in Minneapolis on Aug. 21 at 7:30 pm.

Visit www.wensoashby.com for more info and to order a copy of Artistry.