The Millbrook Library hosted JAZZ THROUGH THE ISLANDS from The Catskill Jazz Factory. The event was sponsored by the Millbrook Arts Group. Vocalist Shenel Johns performed alongside guitarist Gabe Schnider and bassist Matt Dwonszyk. Johns’ heritage stems from Jamaica, but she is an American. The program focused on relating the mutual influences of Jamaican music on American gospel, blues, and jazz and American influences on Jamaican ska and reggae.
The fundamental, original Jamaican music came from Ghana; it’s called mento, which slaves from Ghana brought with them. This is rhythmic village folk music accompanied by dance wherein stories are told. Players usually consist of guitar, banjo, and drummers. Johns began with a Jamaican mento song, “Make me hold your hand.” This welcome song displayed robust humor and Jones made everyone feel welcome as she managed to get the full house singing the song’s refrain with gusto.
Johns noted the Jamaican roots of New York-born Harry Belafonte; his famous banana boat song was a Jamaican mento song marketed as a Trinidadian calypso song. This originated from the field and harbor work song tradition in Jamaica. She sang a Jamaican gospel song “It is well with my soul,” which was as much blues as gospel. Her voice remains dramatic while it is completely natural. Piers Playfair of the Catskill Jazz factory brought her to work with The Catskill Jazz factory. Piers introduced her to the library crowd and I’m here to say that even if you missed this short hour performance, it is quite likely that you will hear the name of Shenel Johns in the future because she can sing with vibrant modulation, soul, and infectious joy.
Johns spoke of the influence of trad (traditional) jazz on Jamaican music, especially Louis Armstrong. She sang “A woman is smarter than a man in every way,” a witty anecdotal winner. Schnider and Dwonszyk improvised a rambling medley, handing leads back and forth. Schnider (from Poughkeepsie) is an excellent picker and can perform amazingly fast runs on the guitar, while Dwonszyk plays with resonant rhythm and deep soul.
Johns next sang a ska song in 2/4 rhythm (as in blues). “I know you don’t love me” also delivered a delicious scat interlude. The refrain of the song is “You said you loved me,” and she managed to move the audience to rejoin with the refrain “You lied.” She then reflected on reggae and its intense focus on freedom. She sang an early Bob Marley song, “The conquering lion.” A short audio clip of the trio rehearsing at the Millbrook Library appears below.