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As the in-house violinist of the Up and Up Open Mic, Chelsey Green was the dignified extension of Mambo Sauce’s rock-tinged go-go. She could fill in with sophisticated string arrangements or turn your favorite pop hits into neoclassical jams. Loads of talent came through the weekly showcase, but Green was always the wild card, a grand left-of-center musician at an event full of black alternatives. Where else could you see a classically trained violinist playing backup to the region’s up-and-coming rappers? If you’ve seen her perform, surely you’ve witnessed Green shred her trademark green bows, twirling vigorously as she embraces whatever song she’s playing with her whole body.
As the leader of her own band, the Green Project, Green teeters between standard jazz and, well, something else. “I like to call it ‘classical, shaken and stirred,’” the Houston native told Washington City Paper in 2012, when she released her Still Green EP. In 2010, Green was an artist in residence at the Strathmore arts center in North Bethesda; last November, she appeared on the Late Show with David Letterman, playing the viola during rapper J. Cole’s “Crooked Smile” performance. Elsewhere, Green has performed locally with contemporaries Maimouna Youssef and Carolyn Malachi while keeping a regular touring schedule with her own abstract collective. Green’s music is considered “jazz,” but it takes a brilliant dip into R&B, soul, and hip-hop.
On her new album, The Green Room, the violinist stretches that approach, churning wistful chords beneath effusive streams of live instrumentation. Though she’s the bandleader, Green doesn’t mind receding under Brian “Spyda” Wheatley’s fluid percussion and Kevin Powe Jr.’s rolling bass lines, both of which bring nostalgic sensations to Green’s soothing string work. While Still Green carried a mid- to down-tempo vibe, The Green Room kicks off with the upbeat “Dr. Funk,” a jaunty tune that could double as the theme of a late-night TV show. “People Make the World Go Round,” an instrumental remake of the 1971 Stylistics tune, works just as well without words. Here, Green substitutes the picturesque lyrics for an orchestral harmony. The song’s second half is led by layers of energetic synthesized keyboards. It’s still old-school, but the results fall somewhere in the retro-futuristic 1980s.
Then there are songs like “Autumn Leaves,” on which Green pushes her voice to the fore. At the beginning, her smoky soprano weaves through sentimental piano jabs. From there, the track offers some of the album’s best moments: A silky church organ—courtesy of Lorenzo Johnson—makes this feel like gospel, but Green punctures that vibe with pensive words of love gone by.
On “My Favorite Things,” from The Sound of Music, Green takes an iconic song and turns it into a soulful concoction that speaks to her force as a multifaceted, multitalented artist who remains a standout even when she simply plays the background. Same goes for “Party Song,” a galloping dance groove that never quite takes off; Green’s violin simmers without reaching a full boil, which plays well against the band’s nocturnal theme. On “1 a.m.,” the mood slows to a sultry tempo, and the airy composition gives a romantic jolt to an already diverse compilation. If you close your eyes, you can see Green—face contorted—getting into these tracks. Her newest album is just as expressive as she’s always been.
Chelsey Green plays Blues Alley on Oct. 6.