Berks Jazz Fest artist Maysa up close

By Mike Zielinski

Grammy-nominated Maysa, the incomparable jazz, soul, R&B and funk vocalist with the instantly identifiable honey-toned mezzo-soprano and an undeniably brilliant and magnetic stage presence, has lived such a storybook life that apparently her guardian angel hasn’t blown a wing.

Maysa also excels at multitasking.

While being interviewed for this story, she also was playing slots in a Maryland casino.

“I like to play slots but I’m really terrible at it,” she says. “But I’m winning now. I just won a thousand dollars.”

Jackpot!

Continuing the multitasking narrative, Maysa also is doing triple duty during the 30th anniversary Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest as presented by the Berks Arts Council.

She is performing with Pieces of a Dream along with Justin-Lee Schultz on Friday, March 27, at 9:30 p.m.; Celebrating the Music of Stevie Wonder at 70 on Saturday, April 4, at 1 p.m.; and with Incognito on Saturday, April 4 at 9:30 p.m. — all at the DoubleTree by Hilton Reading Grand Ballroom.

“It’s really cool to be in three performances at Berks Jazz Fest,” she says. “It means a lot to me that they think enough of me to want me to do that. It’s amazing that Berks Jazz Fest is turning 30.

“I love Berks. It’s like a homecoming. You see all your friends you don’t get to see a lot on the road. It feels like they bring us all together and we all hang out and it’s really cool. It’s really nice. I love the area. I love Reading. I love the shopping and it has a Main Street hometown kind of feel. They say it’s a dangerous city, but I always feel safe there.”

Maysa is perfect to be a part of the tribute to Stevie Wonder along with Chris “Big Dog” Davis, Rick Braun, Kimberly Brewer, Eric Darius, Nick Colionne, Ragan Whiteside, Glenn Jones, Art Sherrod Jr. and the DOXA Gospel Ensemble.

Maysa was a member of the world-renowned Morgan State University Choir, which proved pivotal to launching her fairytale career.

Promise and fulfillment don’t always share the same zip code. But in her case, they did.

“Stevie was singing with the Morgan choir,” she says. “He was looking for an alto voice. I auditioned for him. I had one year left in school. I asked him if I could finish school and give my parents my degree and then I would come to California. He agreed. I got my degree in classical vocal performance.”

Within weeks of graduating, she became a part of Stevie Wonder’s backup ensemble, Wonderlove.

“It was amazing being with Stevie Wonder,” Maysa recalls. “It was overwhelming a bit at first, not really knowing what was expected of me. But I adjusted. Stevie was great, very easy to work with. It all panned out.”

Even when she was a passenger in a car that Stevie Wonder was driving. It should go without saying, but for the one or two of you out there who may not know, Stevie Wonder is blind.

“We were leaving the studio and they told us to get in the back,” she says. “This time his body double walked Stevie over to the driver’s side. Stevie drove down the driveway a little bit in a parking lot. He did OK. But I was breathing loudly. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Score another assist for Maysa’s guardian angel.

Maysa’s peerless vocalizing highlighted by her amazingly rich, evocative vocal tone once led Stevie to exclaim: “Maysa is WONDERful!”

After a few years musically supporting Wonder, Maysa auditioned by telephone for the lead voice in Incognito, which is recognized as one of the best funk/jazz/soul groups in the world and has been for over 40 years.

Hired on the spot, she was on a plane, $10 in her pocket, to record with the band in London within the week. The first single with the new vocalist, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” in 1992, gave Maysa immediate international recognition. She was 26.

She also was the featured voice on Incognito’s defining hits “Still A Friend of Mine” and “Deep Waters.” She then launched a concurrent solo career with the hits “Am I Wrong (For Lovin’ You),” “Friendly Pressure” and “Hypnotic Love.”

Incognito’s lasting popularity is remarkable because the music industry often is a disposable society. They want things to burn fast and burn bright and then dump the ashes before they soil their shoes.

Asked to explain Incognito’s longevity, Maysa, who still sings with the band on its American tours, says: “(Bandleader) Bluey (Maunick) creates real music despite all the gimmicks and trends today. Just staying true to the music and staying true to yourself is the key.

“There is a big audience out there that the music industry ignores. The music industry has gotten into a feeding frenzy with these young kids and what kind of gimmicks they have and what can they make a lot of money off real quick instead of focusing on the people who have kept real music alive. They act like they don’t exist anymore. That they don’t matter.”

Of Pieces of a Dream, Maysa says: “I perform with Pieces occasionally, perhaps once a year. We’ve been doing it for so long it’s rather seamless.

“I like performing with others and performing solo. When I feel like being the boss and feel like having my voice heard about certain issues, I like going solo. But there are times when I just want to be like a kid, go out and sing and not worry about anything. No stress. Just show up and sing. That’s kind of fun. Then there are times when I want to perform solo and get my messages out. It’s kind of on me then.”

It would be criminally remiss for any author of a Maysa story to not mention THE VOICE.

Listening to her voice, the compelling impulse is to remove the hinge on the door that opens tomorrow and remain in the moment, unwilling to bid bon voyage to today.

Her sound is, well, so incredibly, deliciously Maysa.

She is the kind of singer who takes hold of a song and enraptures her audience in the palm of her hands, as she delivers lyrics, phrases, melodies and harmonies in a way that only she can. Her alluring vocals, candor, humor and purity of sound are exquisite.

She has the stylistic range to encompass jazz, soul, R&B and funk in her performances. She’s in her element in live settings, moving from musical style to musical style, classics to originals, past to present.

Her raw sensuality is every bit as powerful as a sharp broadsword.

“People tell me they make babies or they make up to my music,” she says. “That’s cool.”

Many consider her to be the greatest soul-jazz singer of her generation.

Her voice is a treasure and she is diligent about preserving it and maintaining the perfect pitch cascading like subline electrons from her tongue.

“I developed my voice more in college at Morgan State and listened a lot to Sara Vaughan, Chaka Khan, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday,” Maysa says. “My voice further developed over the years.

“I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs. Never have. That’s a big part of it. I try to take care of myself. I try to exercise as much as I can. I try to keep it hydrated. I drink a lot of water. I do it with apple cider vinegar, honey and water in a combination I do. Try to eat well. Eat on show days. If I don’t eat, my voice gets strange.”

Her guardian angel helps out by sprinkling that unforgettable voice with celestial stardust.

Besides being the numerical benchmark for perfect vision, 2020 is important to Maysa.

“It’s my 25th year as a solo artist in 2020,” she explains. “And 29 years with Incognito.”

To mark the milestone occasion, Maysa is creating her untitled 14th studio album for her new record label Blue Velvet Soul Records.

“I haven’t come up with a name for my album,” she says. “I’m trying to get more of the album under my belt. I haven’t had a chance to write because I’ve been working a lot. And mentally I just couldn’t get it together. Sometimes writers go through that.

“But I’m on the case and will be working hard to pull it all together. By next summer I’ll have it together. I would like to have it come out August 29th on my own label because on August 29th,1995 my first album (Maysa) was released. I’m the boss on this one.

“I will try everything in my power to make this album my masterpiece. It will be soulful, spiritual, danceable and sensual. That’s what is taking me so long.”

Maysa likes to be in control.

“I’m kind of sort of my own manager and PR person,” she explains. “I have one person, a consultant who helps me with things I can’t do myself. I work real very hard. I have to do everything myself pretty much. It’s been that way the whole time. Since I started. It’s just is what it is. I’m just grateful that I can still do this.

“Lately I’ve been getting sick of the traveling. I’m older now (53). Traveling is a lot of wear and tear on your body. It really is. But I can’t imagine a life without performing.

“I’m grateful to be in this industry and relevant at this age. I ask God to please let me do this the rest of my life. I don’t take anything for granted. I don’t take the audience for granted. I don’t take the people who hire me for granted. I try to give my worth. I work hard and make sure 100 percent that the audience and the promoter get their money’s worth.

“Absolutely some of the happiest moments in my life are performing on stage and recording in the studio. I love it all. But performing live is the ultimate. I get the chance to really be with people, talk with them and get the feedback on how they enjoyed themselves. All those things are important.”

Life on the road takes its toll. But the rewards of her profession are rich in ways that transcend mere money.

Maysa has had a full and accomplished career stuffed with international tours, major television appearances, national awards, positive reviews, chart-topping movie soundtracks, personal recordings and musical collaborations with some of the best jazz and R&B musicians in the industry.

Her mark in music is indelible, making it impossible for anyone to brush aside the cloudburst of fame that has hovered over all of her adult life.

Inevitably all verbs become past tense in life. But Maysa remains very much in the present. With her guardian angel at her side.

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