It was with great anticipation and trepidation that I approached an evening with Jasmine Cephas-Jones at Joe’s Pub. I knew she was a brilliant singer because I’d seen her in Hamilton and listened to her many times on the cast album. She contributed beautiful harmonies as Peggy Schulyer and she had a magnificent star turn as Maria Reynolds in the second half. Her voice could go from clean pop and soul to rough R&B. But what kind of material would she choose? Would the songs be as good a showcase for her as those that Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote?
On the walk from the subway I was happy to see the Imagine cube back in its spot on Astor Place. And some young guys were spinning it around. The set-up for the club is that you enter it through the lobby of the Public Theater. Before I’d left the house, Javier Muñoz had tweeted that “the best way to end your best birthday ever is with #HamFam and the vocal stylings of Jasmine Cephas-Jones at Joe’s Pub.” So I knew Muñoz was going to be there and probably Anthony Ramos to support his girlfriend. I’m not familiar with most of the current Hamilton cast but I knew Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan was still with the show. But would I recognize him? Turns out I would. There he was in the lobby with his knit hat and holding a skateboard. He was talking with someone, otherwise I might have said something. On the line ahead of me was a Latino character actor, who I immediately recognized but could not remember his name. He’s been in thousands of TV shows and movies and I wanted to tell him I admired his work but I was embarrassed that I couldn’t recall who he was. (Looking at Instagram, I see that his name is David Zayas and he was with his wife Liza Colón-Zayas.) At the club’s floor level are tables and booths. You walk down for more tables and there’s a narrow counter with seats on the floor level that separates it from the lower level. There’s a high stage on the lower level. You walk up from the floor level for the bar and a very long counter that runs the length of the room with more seats. That’s where I was sitting – with a great view of the stage. And there was Howard Hesseman sitting in a booth below me.
I’ve been favoring mezcal and tequila cocktails lately so I ordered the School on Sunday (Los Amantes mescal, Dolin Blanc, orange and chocolate bitters, cocoa, and chili ice cube). The first sips tasted good but it got worse as the night wore on and I couldn’t finish it. For food I ordered a salad – roasted beets, Asian pear, chervil, goat cheese, and hazelnuts. The beets were very good but cut into big chunks. There was barely any chervil and just a few thin slices of Asian pear. I was wondering where the goat cheese was and then I realized it was a thin layer spread across the bottom of the bowl that I had to scrape hard to get all of it. Basically it was a big bowl of beets, which I love, but it could have been so much more. I also had the fried Brussels sprouts, bacon, and grainy mustard, which was also very good. My biggest complaint was that since the club opens only a half-hour before the show there is not a lot of time to order and eat before the show begins. People are still arriving and the waiters are running around taking the orders and, since I’d ordered early, my empty plates sat in front of me for too long despite the busboys/runners and wait staff walking past me. I finally got a busboy/runner’s attention and had him take the plates away.
The musicians came out (she did introduce them but with the applause I couldn’t hear the names) and took their places – piano, electric bass, drums, and electric guitar. Then a voice came over the sound system. Most of us immediately recognized it and started applauding. It was Ron Cephas-Jones talking about his joy when his daughter was born and how she was the perfect melody and her journey that led to Broadway and how proud he was of her. Most or all of it may have been a poem. It was lovely. The biggest applause was when he said she’d landed on Broadway. Jasmine Cephas-Jones made her entrance in a long-sleeved, V-neck, red jumpsuit with a black and white pattern and a long skirt in the back. She opened with Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones” and I had no doubts about the material she was going to choose. The audience applauded every time she sang one of those soaring blues notes. Her next song, “Hide,” was introduced as by her friend in London, Sinead [Harnett]. She asked if we wanted to hear something by Little Dragon and there was a “Yeah!” and Cephas-Jones said, “Oak does” and she sang “Twice.” Cephas-Jones added a jazzy style to many of the songs, which is not surprising since her mother is jazz singer Kim Lesley. Cephas-Jones invited her friend Rob up on stage to play harmonica for Beyoncé’s “Daddy Lessons.” Her pianist played tuba for this song.
There was a long pause and Cephas-Jones said, “Well, it’s been a long two weeks,” and let out a sigh. “We can get through this.” And she sang Solange Knowles’ “Cranes in the Sky.” Then she invited her sister Sara(?) up on stage to read a poem, “Sweet Sixteen.”
Cephas-Jones followed the poem with a beautiful rendition of “Ave Maria.” It was an unusual choice and, although it sounded lovely, I’m not so sure it fit in with the set. The next song she had sang with her mother at her last performance a couple of weeks before. It was Michael Jackson’s “I Can’t Help It.” Cephas-Jones scatted and used her full range for the song and there was lots and lots of applause throughout the song. She said that jazz is in her blood from her mother. And she joked that her father just sounds like a jazz musician. Her next song was D’Angelo’s “Africa.” Then she asked Anthony Ramos to come up on stage. He was almost giggly/giddy from the start and once they started singing he kept cracking himself up. While she was singing, he put his hand up inside his shirt made the motion of his heart beating. After that he completely lost it. They sang John Legend’s “Ordinary People” and she was singing “take it slow” more and more slowly and he was so much digging her voice. It was adorable to watch.
He went back to the end of my row and when I glanced over I saw that Muñoz was at the end also. During Janelle Monáe’s “Electric Lady,” Cephas-Jones rapped during the break and her sister was up on her feet and going nuts. Then Cephas-Jones had each musician take a solo as she introduced them.
For the encore, it was just Cephas-Jones and the pianist. She said she started with Prince so she was going to end with Prince. It was “How Come U Don’t Call Me Anymore?” There were more soaring blues notes and each time she soared the audience would break out in applause and words encouraging her to go on and on. Cephas-Jones choose songs that were close to her heart and that could speak for her. If you know me, you know how much I admire that.
After the encore, the rest of the band came up on stage for a final bow and Ramos ran up and gave Cephas-Jones a Christmas tree in a pot – not a tiny one – with decorations and big red bow on top. She looked both surprised and delighted.
As I was walking out, I decided to go to the end of my row and tell Muñoz how much I had enjoyed him when he performed with Miss! Chita! Rivera! Just as I got to him, he was talking with someone next to him. My choices: (1) Wait but that would mean literally breathing down his neck because it was a very narrow space or (2) Be rude and interrupt. I decided on 2. And not only did I interrupt but I had to touch his arm to get his attention. So, I was rude on two counts. He was gracious, thanked me, and went back to talking to his friend. I realized I felt badly about what I had done. I was just so excited about seeing him and telling him how great I thought he was. Oak was standing at the end talking to a couple. I also wanted to tell him how much I’d enjoyed him in Hamilton but I didn’t want to interrupt another conversation, even though this one looked more like fans and actor, and I couldn’t wait because then I’d be blocking the exit and no one behind me would be able to leave. So I excused myself as I walked between Oak and the couple. When I got home, I tweeted Muñoz and apologized for my rudeness and told him why I’d been so excited that I interrupted him and he “liked” my tweets, so I guess he accepts my apology.
Her first evening with the harmonica and tuba: http://www.instagram.com/p/BM0LurhA5YW/
Jasmine Cephas-Jones on stage: http://www.instagram.com/p/BNV2h3OA6Rl/
With David Zayas and Liza Colón-Zayas and Anthony Ramos: http://www.instagram.com/p/BNW1-9vjERi/
Video of Ramos cracking himself up: http://www.instagram.com/p/BNVnpwABU5C/
With the Christmas tree: http://www.instagram.com/p/BNVqrlNDLtT/
With #HamFam (I didn’t see Renée Elise Goldsberry): http://www.instagram.com/p/BNVz8JKhki3/
By Carene Lydia Lopez