- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 12, 2002

What happens when you like the music, but don't know how to find it? This week, three musicians are in town who will make your next trip to the local record store a veritable treasure hunt. But whether you hit pay dirt in the blues, jazz, swing or "other" sections, you know you'll be coming up with something original.

Take Shemekia Copeland, who appears tonight at the Birchmere. Since she was 18, the 23-year-old singer has been burning up the charts with a distinctive blend of blues, soul and a star quality that conjures up comparisons to Tina Turner or Big Mama Thornton. As the daughter of the late Texas bluesman Johnny Copeland, the smoky-voiced singer knows when to call on her roots, but she won't be constrained by them.

"My dad always said, 'be a leader, not a follower,' Miss Copeland recalls. "That was one of his life lessons for me."

Artistically, that advice means she's able to transcend genres, and work blues, funk and soul into her sound. And just watch her confidence as the once-shy singer strides out to the front of the stage, throws back her head and sings.

Miss Copeland has one powerful instrument to command picture the heft of Bessie Smith, the intensity of Koko Taylor and the elegance of Dinah Washington rolled into one. But make no mistake: Miss Copeland is her own woman. This is not your father's or her father's blues.

But her latest CD, "Talking to Strangers," shows that she's not unwilling to listen to advice. For the project, she worked closely with producer Dr. John, the legendary New Orleans fonk master, who plays piano and organ on the album.

The result of their collaboration, Miss Copeland says, is an entirely new approach to the music.

"He taught me to undersell the song," she says. "He said, 'Sing it like you're singing for yourself' and that really had an impact on me."

So whether she's duetting with Dr. John on "The Push I Need" or reworking her father's familiar "Pie in the Sky," each track has her own take on the tune.


Incorporating a range of musical styles is also central to saxman Ski Johnson's sound. Since the early 1980s, the D.C. resident's unique blend of genres has taken him on tour with the likes of Roy Ayers, Patti Labelle, and Brian McKnight. Tomorrow night he'll be performing at Reggie's Sports Bar in Lanham. Saturday night he'll be part of the Christmas at the White House celebration.

Mr. Johnson has come a long way since his days at McFarland Junior High School in the District, when he was, by his own admission, heading down the "wrong path." A bout with alopecia left him completely bald by the time he was 12, and the resultant teasing led him to one fight after another.

That ended the day his mother took his grandfather's clarinet out of the closet.

"I just fell in love right then and there," he says. "Finally, I had something to live for."

Not every instrumentalist can carve out his own sonic niche, but like Jascha Heifetz, Ski Johnson's sound is instantly recognizable. His tone has prompted comparisons to Grover Washington, but his infusion of R&B and jazz, with a little dollop of soft rock on the side, makes it clear who is doing the blowing.

"I just play what I feel and not try to mimic anyone," he says. "What I do comes from the heart."


Meanwhile, Iota hosts one of the release parties for the annual Hungry for Music holiday CD on Saturday. Designed to benefit inner city youth, Hungry for Music is now on volume 7 of its annual holiday offering.

Performers at Iota include Esther Haynes, who has made her mark as a vocalist, and guitar and banjo player in the old-timey and 1930s swing styles.

The Northern Virginia native got her start after her sixth grade teacher at Taylor Elementary School in Arlington began teaching her class how to play fingerstyle guitar. Three years later, after hours spent listening to the soundtrack from "Deliverance," Miss Haynes got her first banjo.

"I figured if I could play something with six strings I could play something with five," she says, laughing.

College at Virginia Tech in Southwestern Virginia meant nightly jam sessions and exposure to bluegrass and fiddle music. Later, in Boston, Miss Haynes worked with Larry Unger and the band Boston City Limits. She began "fooling around" with swing music, she says, thanks to a Japanese boyfriend who taught her how to play jazz guitar. A stint abroad led to work as part of the folk duo Southern Comfort.

Now back in the D.C. area, Miss Haynes works regularly with the band Hokum Jazz, performing vintage blues, jazz and swing from the '20s to the '40s. "Music has always been my element," she says. "I love just about any kind."

And by the way, all three musicians have their own Web sites where fans can purchase CDs, if you are having trouble finding them.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide