IN Series honors two DC legends in ‘Chuck & Eva: Songs from the Other Side’

A concert with reverence for Chuck Brown and Eva Cassidy, who produced and recorded an album of jazz classics and songs from the American songbook.

You shoulda been there. The newest production by IN Series was successful in so many ways.

In his program notes, artistic director Tim Nelson highlights the fact that IN Series seeks to produce art “that changes the world through depth, intention, and care.” Another word came up for me while experiencing Chuck & Eva: Songs from the Other Side. That word is Reverence. From the choice of performance venue and the choice to honor these two beloved Washington, DC-area artists, to the shaping of the performance and arrangements of the music, reverence for the material and the tradition embodied in that material pervaded the entire production.

The True Reformer Building was the first Black-designed, -owned, and -financed building in the United States after Reconstruction. It was also the first place that Duke Ellington performed publicly. The Grand United Order of True Reformers — the folks who built this building — was a temperance organization. So this building is sacred ground: appropriate for the musical ritual we would experience.

Greg Watkins and Melissa Wimbish appearing in ‘Chuck & Eva: Songs from the Other Side.’

The Other Side was the title of the album that Chuck Brown and Eva Cassidy produced together, recording jazz classics and songs from the American songbook. Since both Cassidy and Brown are deceased, the subtitle of this show also suggests that these two are still speaking to us, even after death through their music.

Jazz is one of the musics invented by African-heritage people in this country as they sought to bear witness to their experiences and to give shape to their futures. A typical jazz performance is often structured as a statement of an original melody that is then followed by improvised explorations of that melody by each soloist. When the players are really “on” — as they were here — a jazz performance can be like a communal prayer in which the melodies/prayers intermingle and interplay with each other. The process embodies a call-and-response both to the music itself and to the musician’s engagement with the music. Each successive soloist responds to what has been explored by the previous musician. Since the musicians are basically calling out — naming — the communal joy and pain of the audience as well as their own, the audience is expected to respond vocally: “Sing, Melissa!” “Yes!” Further, the audience, when so moved, is welcome and sometimes expected to respond with applause after each musician’s musical offering. This stands in contrast to the operatic and European classical convention of being frowned at for applauding in between the movements of a musical work. The tension between the traditions was palpable in the audience response. But the music won. We all had a ball.

Janelle Gill, music director and arranger, ‘Chuck & Eva: Songs from the Other Side.’

The music director and arranger for the production is the amazing Janelle Gill. If you ever hear that a production is occurring in which Gill is the music director, don’t ask questions. Just go and hear what’s happening. The playground that she creates for her musicians is distinctively transparent and productive. One wonderful moment — and this performance was filled with wonderful moments — was watching, as Gill watched and listened to each musician’s exploration of the music. Her face showed, by turns, extreme attention, joy, surprise at and respect for her fellow musicians’ skill, playfulness, and courage. This appreciation seemed to suffuse the performance. Everyone on that stage was intently listening to everyone else. No one more so than the great eminence grise, Marshall Keys (Saxophone). All of the musicians (Romeir Mendez, Bass; Dana Hawkins, Drums; DeAnte Haggerty Willis, Guitar) and singers (Greg Watkins and Melissa Wimbush) held the music reverently and masterfully. But Keys’ musical explorations and onstage presence embodied the history and purpose of this music in a way that only someone who has himself become history, while still living, can do.

Neither Watkins nor Wimbish was trying to imitate or mimic Chuck Brown or Eva Cassidy. Instead, they brought their own singing mastery to bear on the songs and the traditions embodied in the Brown and Cassidy recording, while taking us along for the ride. Watkins is at his most debonair and Andy Bey–ish on “You Don’t Know What Love Is.” Wimbish surprised me with her Etta Jones–like voicings on “Let the Good Times Roll.” Mendez’s bass on “I Could Have Told You So” was fiery. Willis’ guitar in duet with Wimbush on “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” was bittersweet. Hawkins’ drums (especially on the Ahmad Jamal Poinciana–like entrance to “Dark End of the Street”) were a sophisticated pleasure to hear. And Keys provided what Ellington called “excruciating ecstasy” throughout the evening.

Running Time: 70 minutes with no intermission.

Chuck & Eva: Songs from the Other Side, after an album by Chuck Brown and Eva Cassidy featuring music from the Great American Songbook, played June 1 and 2, 2023, presented by IN Series performing at True Reformer Hall, 1200 U St NW, in Washington, DC. There will be one more performance on Saturday, June 24, 2023, at 8 pm at Baltimore Theatre Project, presented by IN Series.

COVID Safety: Baltimore Theater Project encourages masks but does not require them.

Chuck & Eva: Songs from the Other Side, After an Album by Chuck Brown and Eva Cassidy featuring music from the Great American Songbook
Music by various
Text by various

Greg Watkins
Melissa Wimbish, soprano
Janelle Gill, Music Director and Arranger

Romeir Mendez, Bass
Dana Hawkins, Drums
DeAnte Haggerty Willis, Guitar
Marshall Keys, Saxophone

Audio Engineer: Michael Dunton


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here