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PHENOMENAL WOMAN: THE MAYA ANGELOU SONGS and Songs Without Words

 

 

 

Phenomenal Woman: The Maya Angelou Songs – Extraordinary!

Posted on October 27, 2018 by Alix Cohen in Playing Around

 

By rights, and I’m a committed fan of Birdland, this indelible cross pollination of classical/opera/jazz/blues/gospel should be at Carnegie Hall – which is not to say you won’t find yourself chair dancing. Composer Louis Rosen’s symbiotic relationship with poet Maya Angelou, muse/vocalist Capathia Jenkins, and his superb band is so organic, so exacting in craft, it’s difficult to imagine one without the other.

Twelve years ago Rosen (composer/songwriter/performer/teacher) heard Capathia Jenkins and felt he’d found the last component needed to fully realize what became The Black Loom Trilogy, scoring the work of Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, and Maya Angelou. Enmeshed in a black, Chicago neighborhood through his childhood, the artist always felt affinity with and uncanny understanding of his neighbors’ roots and challenges.

Unlike composers whose enthusiasm overrides capacity, Rosen’s music never feels like fitting a square peg in a round hole, as if poems are wrangled into submission. Some of these songs are so melodious (while maintaining ferocity), it seems as if words were originally lyrics. Excavating life experience, the artist adds painterly imagination, musical backbone, and arresting texture to Angelou’s raw emotion.

Capathia Jenkins is unique. I could note shades of Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Helen Humes, Aretha Franklin …but the lady’s style and talent are very much her own. Jenkins seems to becomea song rather than perform it. Cascading through octaves with seamless control and discretion, she erupts and retreats plumbing meaning. Exuberance is infectious, anger palpable, pathos visceral.

An epilogue to the trilogy and woven into the Angelou suite are a Prelude and four Interludes. Immensely evocative musical pieces, these seem ripe for choreography. We open with “A Day Next Week,” conjuring lamplight shadows, wet streets- underbelly; tense anticipation. The clarinet gets under one’s skin.

A honey-cured “Come Be My Baby” finds Jenkins’ irresistibly seductive. In “But They Went Home,” she’s darkly resigned; admired, tasted, abandoned, yet not defeated. With “Preacher Don’t,” we’re galvanized by rhythm. Trumpet underlines: Preacher, don’t send me/when I die/to some big ghetto/in the sky…I’d call a place/pure paradise/where families are loyal/and strangers are nice,/where the music is jazz/and the season is fall./Promise me that/ or nothing at all. The congregation is clearly jivin’ while lyrics dive deep.

Interlude I “Dream Dust” floats in like a drug haze. Ravishing trumpet hands off to sax which nods to vibraphone. Languid and shimmering, musical wails rise from fog. Steps are careful. “Think About Myself”: When I think about myself,/ I almost laugh myself to death, /My life has been one great big joke, A dance that’s walked /A song that’s spoke…swells with pride and fury. Jenkins vibrates.

“Some Blues I’ve Had” begins a capella. This is a voice in which you want to wrap yourself – to comfort or be comforted, one wonders. Then, whomp! hard, rhythmic beat surrounds us with a pulsing neighborhood – dirty, noisy, poor, roiled. The singer (character) moves through it, past it – inside her head? A door or window abruptly closes. Sanctuary. Music is elemental and charred, vocal tenacious.

Rosen and Jenkins recall the journey they’ve been on (thus far). They agree that timing was inadvertently auspicious. “We both aged into the work.”

“Turned to Blue” determinedly faces down a demon – better one known and addressed. Interlude II “Trust Silence” bends without edges expressing solitude, not loneliness. Muted horn is our protagonist. Teased by flute and vibraphone, awareness expands owning a feeling of possibility.

"I Hate to Lose Something” sashays in churning, roadhouse burlesque. Drums punctuate. Horn swings its hips. “I hate to lose something,”/then she bent her head,/“even a dime, I wish I was dead…”Now if I felt that way ‘bout a watch & a toy,/What you think I feel `bout my lover-boy?... Jenkins moooves with warning grit. Her territory, her piece of earthy delight.

Pissed off and mourning sisterhood, “Poor Girl, Just Like Me” sympathizes with her lover’s other girl. Surges and digressions are perfectly employed to make the song a scene. We believe every word. Bass-centric  “Out Here Alone” is a true blues: The race of man is suffering/And I can hear the moan,/‘Cause nobody,/ But nobody/Can make it out here alone… Jenkins sings widening her eyes, extending both arms, opening palms, entreating. A declaration of elusive truth.

Jenkins calls “Together” (Interlude III) “my jam.” In fact, eyes closed, fingers snapping, she rocks and bounces throughout –as does much of the grooving audience. Instruments seem a pumped-up gang intent on getting into mischief. Having read Angelou’s autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, at 14, she then picked it up again recently. “The thing she does so beautifully is to use poetry to describe trauma.” Rosen wields his medium similarly, inhabiting, not wallowing; often providing music in pithy counterpoint to gravity.

“For the Caged Bird Sings” musically loops and sails with a free bird, while his fellow … Can seldom see through his bars of rage/His wings are clipped and his feet are tied/So he opens his throat to sing….much like Angelou herself and representing others. The lovely song is rife with yearning.

“Phenomenal Woman-Song for C.J.” (Note the title addition) is sassy, cool, savvy, sure, and all wo-man. Jenkins works it with every fiber of her formidable being. Though a powerful anthem, finesse never exits. The performer has a lustrous light note with more guts than most in the business.

Tonight’s encore “The Black Loom” from One Ounce of Truth: The Nikki Giovanni Songs, is sheer voodoo; seething, tribal, hot. Horns cry. The inclination is to call out as if at a revival meeting. We rise as one, nourished and knocked out.

Musicianship is flat out terrific.

Phenomenal Woman is the last component of Black Loom Trilogy. Though given the rights to perform his Angelou songs, it was not until last year that the author’s estate signed off on performance. A CD has also been released. It’s masterful.

Photos by Steve Friedman

 

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Capathia Jenkins & Louis Rosen

Phenomenal Woman:

The Maya Angelou Songs and Songs Without Words

 

 

Maya Angelou is revered as one of the greatest and most influential writers in America. Her ability to spin tapestries depicting life in this country, as both an African American woman and as a person fighting for their right to live free, is evident in her best known works such as I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Her books and poetry profoundly shaped American literature as we know it today. When Angelou died on May 28, 2014, President Barack Obama described her as “one of the brightest lights of our time.” Now, with Phenomenal Woman: The Maya Angelou Songs and Songs Without Words, Broadway star Capathia Jenkins and composer Louis Rosen have come together to bring the words of Maya Angelou back to life through music.

Phenomenal Woman is a beautifully done project and in many ways can be considered an amalgamation of both classical music and jazz. Composed as a song cycle, there are no clear improvisatory sections, but Rosen takes advantage of jazz instrumentation and at times, grooves, to give the entire cycle a much looser feel. This is certainly true of the four instrumental interludes, or Songs Without Words, that divide the sections. Throughout the album it is also clear that Rosen approached the composition of each tune with a specific intent, creating very unique textures through the use of somewhat nontraditional instruments—at least within the idiom of a jazz sextet—such as the French horn and clarinet.

The album opens with “Prelude: Song Without Words, No. 1 (A Day Next Week),” which begins with a haunting clarinet and piano duet leading into the first song, “Come Be My Baby.” This is an absolutely gorgeous track, with Jenkins’ warm and present tone complimented by the interesting color of sound from the vibraphone.

Jenkins was the perfect choice for this project. Her experience on Broadway is evident in her attention to detail when presenting, as well as interpreting, the lyrics and messages in the texts. Each word comes across so clear and crisp, which couldn’t be more important on an album presenting the poetry of someone as legendary as Maya Angelou. With other stand out tracks such as “I Hate to Lose Something,”  “Out Here Alone,” and “For the Caged Bird Sings,” Phenomenal Woman is a beautiful homage to the legendary Maya Angelou.

Reviewed by Jared Griffin

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CHICAGO SUN-TIMES

Lustrous Songs of Romance and Guilt

By Hedy Weiss, December 20, 2005

LOUIS ROSEN AND CAPATHIA JENKINS at Steppenwolf's  Traffic Series

Something quite magical can happen when a composer has a specific voice to serve as his muse. Consider the case of Louis Rosen, the Chicago-bred, now New York-based songwriter, and his songbird of choice, Capathia Jenkins, who describes herself as "a Brooklyn girl who grew up in church."

On Sunday afternoon, as part of Steppenwolf Theatre's Traffic series, the two shared a bill (along with their sublime piano accompanist, David Loud), performing songs set to the poetry of Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, along with excerpts from Rosen's long-ago Goodman Theatre musical, "Book of the Night." There also were nine of the 12 songs from a nostalgic, romantic, guilt-laced song cycle, "South Side Stories," dealing with much the same emotionally charged biographical material found in The South Side: The Racial Transformation of an American Neighborhood, Rosen's 1998 book about "white flight" in the 1960s.

Rosen is gaunt, angst-ridden, Jewish. Jenkins, who was featured on Broadway in "Caroline, or Change" and is set for the cast of the newly titled show "Martin Short on Broadway: Fame Becomes Me" (which, as it turns out, is not yet confirmed for a Chicago preview) is full-figured and ebullient. She has a voice of tremendous expressive range and a face of such sweetness and joy that it comes as a surprise when she soars in edgier songs of pain and experience.

Although Angelou's poems can be a bit precious on the page, Rosen's settings make you think about them anew. And Jenkins' interpretations -- lustrous, worldly wise, yet always with a hint of vulnerability -- were uniformly winning, whether she was speaking in the voice of a married man's mistress or a woman being two-timed, recalling a blues-ridden summer, or best of all, warning her rival in the sensational "I Hate to Lose Something."

There is no recording of the Rosen-Jenkins collaboration as yet. But Rosen's new musical, "The Pearl," based on the Steinbeck novel, will debut in 2006 as part of Northwestern University's American Musical Theatre Project.

 

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CABARET SCENES

Capathia Jenkins & Louis Rosen

Birdland

When love is in the air, there are few voices more sumptuous than Capathia Jenkins' to capture the spirit. Along with her galvanic theatre appearances, she has been the muse of songwriter Louis Rosen. Rosen composed melodies to the poetry of Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou, and he recently added the work of Nikki Giovanni. He also created a personal memoir of growing up in the south side of Chicago, called "South Side Stories."

Capathia Jenkins brought these poetic musical sketches to life with a voice smooth as warm honey, reflecting a personality of spark and wit. They recently returned to Birdland for the third time, bringing pianist Kimberly Grigsby and David Phillips on bass. If you have not heard this music, the passion and intelligence of Maya Angelou's "Twelve Songs on Poems" and "Dream Suite" by Langston Hughes was gripping. They are poems of reflection, remembrance and inspiration, with Jenkins interpreting the emotions that Rosen formed into music. Her rendition of "Lullaby (For a Black Mother)" was sweet and comforting, a universal connection.

Rosen took turns between piano, guitar and voice, but his strength is songwriting. Starting Langston Hughes' "Blues at Dawn," Rosen quipped that this probably reflected what Rudy Giuliani thought the day after the Florida primary. The terse song began, "I don't dare start thinking in the morning." Nikki Giovanni inspired works included "The World is Not a Pleasant Place" without "someone to hold and be held by."

"South Side Stories" is a musical saga of generations and the joy, pain, love and death they've experienced. Again, Jenkins' exquisite voice illuminated the tale that wound through the 20th century, a performance of elegance, sensibility and passion.

Elizabeth Ahlfors
Cabaret Scenes
January 11, 2008
www.cabaretscenes.org

 

WNYC’s Soundcheck, w/host, John Schaefer, 3/14/05, interview and performance (for NYC premiere of “Twelve Songs”)

 

POSTCARD FROM THE SLOPE by Louise G. Crawford @ onlytheblogknowsbrooklyn.com

He's in our midst. He looks just like everyone else. Drops his kid off at PS 321 and drinks coffee in the morning; he helps out with PTA activities and does the Times' crossword puzzle at the same table every day at Starbucks.

But this man has another identity too. He's a prodigiously talented composer and songwriter. His work will make you swoon, laugh, even cry. Just like I did. Lifted out of the every day, his work delivered me to the worlds of Maya Angelou, Langston Hughes, and a white, Jewish guy from the Southside of Chicago.

His name is Louis Rosen. And Sunday night at Joe's Pub, Capathia Jenkins, sang, among other things, a song-cycle he created based on the sassy eloquence of Maya Angelou's poetry. Rosen uses a variety of song styles to bring the poet's words to life - blues, jazz, musical theater, classical - with suprising leaps of melody and harmony. His music brings out the poet's voice in a  way that enhances and enthralls.

Vocalist Capathia Jenkins is a discovery. Like Rosen, she deserves to be a star. The songs, which were created expressly for her multi-timbered voice, give life to Angelou's women. And Capathia becomes these characters in an instant - her stance, the way she holds her microphone or moves her hand. In tiny theatrical ways, she embodies these phenomenal women and stirs the room with virtuousic blues in a deep alto-to-high soprano range. Her earthy emotionality belies a sophisticated vocal control.

What a pair. Louis and Capathia: a handsome, skinny guy from Chicago's Southside and a ravishing, voluptuous black woman with a voice that makes you laugh and cry.

The audience at Joe's Pub was in their thrall Sunday night. Louis on the piano singing an autobiographical song about growing up. Capathia endearing herself to the crowd while taking us on a journey through a universe of identities. The room took them in with all the cabaret-attention it could muster. Waitresses served, people ate from plates of delicious food, drinks were a-plenty, but the audience was rapt and they applauded ferociously after every song-poem, honored to be among the few to see what was probably the best show in town.

Monday morning I saw Louis in the Slope but I didn't say hello. Feeling a little awed, a little shy, I watched to see if there was a spring in his step after such a phenomenal night. He kissed his son good bye in the lobby of PS 321 and found his usual table at the local Starbucks. Back to being a regular guy. Someone who looks just like everyone else.

Yours from Brooklyn, 
OTBKB

 

AMERICAN UNIVERSITY PAPER: THE EAGLE

By Tara Abell

Issue date: 3/29/07 Section: The Scene

...The first act [of the concert] was composed of songs taken from the poetry of Langston Hughes, Maya Angelou and Nikki Giovanni. Each song cycle highlighted the most widely known works of each poet and certainly shed new light on the meaning and beauty of each. The soft, strong voice of Jenkins combined with Rosen's rhythmic music truly transformed the poetry into something greater than the sum of its parts. 

The audience was not thinking about underlining key words or highlighting phrases in a Lit textbook. Instead, listeners actually realized the deeper messages that were hidden in the poems and better appreciated how each was beautifully, carefully crafted. The songs created a jazzy vibe and were in turn inspiring, empowering and even a little romantic.

The most outstanding number of the evening was "Phenomenal Woman," which is a song adapted from the eponymous Maya Angelou poem. Jenkins sang powerful lyrics that truly touched the audience. It was obvious that as Jenkins sang, "I am a woman, phenomenally. Phenomenal Woman, that's me," she sincerely believed it and made the audience believe it too. ... 

Everyone should look for future performances of Jenkins' and Rosen's work. They are excellent performers who can connect with listeners of all ages, and they're guaranteed to deliver a great show.

 

BLOOMBERG NEWS

Jenkins Makes Old Friends of New Songs at Joe's Pub 

by Jeremy Gerard

Nov. 1 (Bloomberg) -- Eight times a week, Capathia Jenkins belts out a funny, show-stopping number late in Martin Short's Broadway show, "Fames Becomes Me.'' But there's more here. If you want the thrill of discovering an enthralling new talent, spend next Sunday evening at Joe's Pub in Manhattan's East Village.

Jenkins will knock you flat. Her gifts go well beyond gospel-inflected roof-raising. I've never been so seduced by music completely new to me yet as embraceable as any from the classic American songbook.

She is the muse to Chicago composer-lyricist Louis Rosen. The two have already collaborated on a dozen poems by Maya Angelou set to Rosen's music. Now they have recorded his ``South Side Stories,'' a song cycle that betrays influences as diverse as Harold Arlen and Rickie Lee Jones. Yet what is so memorable about this pairing is how unselfconscious and confident both are, Rosen as composer and songsmith, Jenkins his joyous, hand-in- glove interpreter.

For an appetizer, she opens with Rosen's exuberant scoring of Langston Hughes's equally exuberant ``Harlem Night Song'':

"`Come/Let us roam the night together/Singing/I love you.''

They follow with several songs from the Angelou cycle, ranging from humorous (``Preacher, don't send me/When I die/To some big ghetto in the sky'') to ``Poor Girl,'' a torchy ballad in the tradition of ``My Man.''

The ``South Side Stories'' songs are scored in a more pop idiom. Rosen, who accompanies on piano and guitar, has a James Taylor-like talent for setting intimate lyrics over facile, catchy melodies. This cycle includes numbers about the changing social landscape of Chicago's South Side; the first teen-love song I can remember that ends not in tragedy but in enduring friendship; the complicated relationship between parent and child. The most beautiful number is "The Peace That Comes,'' about the death of a father and the ambivalent feelings engendered.

Jenkins, 40, is at home with her audience (which included, on opening night, Short, his show's composer, Marc Shaiman, and the entire cast and crew), speaking briefly and charmingly about each song. In addition to Rosen, 51, her accompanists included David Loud on piano and Dave Phillips on bass. Don't miss this show.