Oh! Have we gone so long without mentioning that Afro Blue, Howard University’s award-winning vocal jazz ensemble, is competing on season 3 of NBC’s The Sing-Off? Why, yes we have. Perhaps it’s because the show combines so many things that inspire deep skepticism: reality television; those damned a cappella ensembles that you can’t walk four feet on a college campus without stumbling across; and Jessica Simpson‘s ex-husband.
Afro Blue, however, isn’t your typical a cappella ensemble. No hobbyists here: Each of its current 10 members is a music major. Nor is the group playing the Glee game of dressing up the pop charts in part-song harmonies. Afro Blue works the jazz repertoire, past and present, and navigates the genre’s tricky harmonies and precise rhythms. They’re also extremely respected within the jazz community, having won two awards from Downbeat magazine. In short, they’re real jazz musicians, they’re serious business, and they’re very different from the usual crowd of a cappella ensembles.
They made that clear in their premiere performance last night. Though their selection of Corinne Bailey Rae’s jazzy neo-soul hit “Put Your Records On” was unusual, that wasn’t what distinguished them from the University of Rochester’s Yellow Jackets, Wisconsin’s Fannin Family, or Sing-Off veterans Delilah. (Though there are 16 contestants this season, the show broke their debuts into two installments of eight groups each, then further divided those installments into two four-way matches.) It was Afro Blue’s low-key performance of the tune that marked it as special—-a show band that avoided being too showy.
Not that they sounded anything but marvelous, mind you; lead vocalist (and local favorite) Christie Dashiell delivered with a smooth, welcoming voice that judge Shawn Stockman referred to as “like warm butter on grits,” and Ben Folds also singled out the work of bass singer Reggie Bowen. The key judgment, however, was a descriptor that Stockman used: “Effortless.” Put another way, a musician recently told this writer that the mark of musical maturity is “When you stop performing like you’ve got something to prove.” That’s the lesson that Afro Blue took to heart.
Happily, the judges thought so too, advancing Afro Blue to the next round of The Sing Off (though they won’t compete again for two weeks). The show advances its contestants according to judges’ decisions every week until the finale, which determines the winner based on audience votes. Fans of D.C. jazz may feel the skepticism described above toward a show like The Sing-Off—-but with $100,000 and a Sony Music recording contract on the line, for Afro Blue this is anything but a fluffy diversion.