'Traces Of Blue' Blends Jazz And Pop To Create Unique Sound

The a capella group began in a college class and went on to find fame on a TV talent show. In this encore broadcast, the group performs and discusses juggling school and a future in music.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

So you just heard some of the music that I love and that I learned about on this program. And if you've been with us for some or all of the last seven years that we've been on the air, then you know that we've welcomed musical artists from all different backgrounds genres to come in and perform and talk about their music and that includes the a cappella group Traces Of Blue. We first noticed them in 2011 when they were performing as Afro Blue on the NBC reality competition "The Sing-Off."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SING-OFF")

AFRO BLUE: (Singing) Strumming my pain with his fingers. Singing my life with his words. Killing me softly with his song. Killing me softly with his song. Telling my whole life with his words killing me softly. With his song.

MARTIN: Their performance of "Killing Me Softly" wowed the judges and the audience. Now, the group then was made up of classmates from Howard University's jazz program. Since then, they've left the nest, changed their name and are taking the world of a cappella jazz by storm. Last summer, Traces Of Blue joined us in our studios in Washington D.C. to talk a little bit and sing a lot. We thought it would be a great time to revisit that conversation and it started with a song that sums up what made them stand favorites on the sing off - Estelle's "American Boy."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN BOY")

TRACES OF BLUE: (Singing) One. Two. One, two, three, and. Take me on a trip, I'd like to go some day. Take me to New York, I'd love to see LA. I'd really love to come and kick it with you. You'll be my American boy. Can we get away this weekend? Take me to Broadway. Let's go shopping, baby, then we'll go to a café. Let's go on the subway. Take me to your hood. I never been to Brooklyn and I'd like to see what's good. Dress in all your fancy clothes. Sneakers looking fresh to death, I'm loving those Shell Toes. Walking that walk. Talking that slick talk. You'll be my American boy, boy, boy. American Boy. What's your persona about that American Brama. Am I shallow 'cause all my clothes designer. I really want to come kick it with you. You'll be my American Boy, American boy Take me on a trip, I'd like to go some day. Take me to New York, I'd love to see LA. I really want to come kick it with you. You'll be my American boy, American boy.

MARTIN: All right. That was "American Boy," sung by Traces of Blue. And let me just confirm for people who aren't here - everything is happening right here; it's all contained within, no instruments, just the voices that you heard. And so why don't we ask you all to introduce yourselves.

DEVIN ROBINSON: Hi, my name is Devin Robinson.

INTEGRITI REEVES: Hi, I'm Integriti Reeves.

CHRISTIE DASHIELL: Hi, I'm Christie Dashiell.

REGINALD BOWENS: Hi, I'm Reginald Bowens.

DANIELLE WITHERS: Hi, I'm Danielle Withers.

JOHN KENNIEBREW: John Kenniebrew.

ELIZA BERKON: And Eliza Berkon.

MARTIN: And Reginald, I understand that you are the music director, so I'll direct the question to you. This isn't everybody, this is not the whole group. How many altogether?

BOWENS: There are 10 total.

MARTIN: 10 total. How did you all get together?

BOWENS: Well, we started off as a class at Howard - under the name Afro Blue. In 2011, we went on to NBC's a cappella show "The Sing-Off." And after the show, we decided we're going to keep going. We changed our name, became a separate entity and started performing more.

MARTIN: And how did "The Sing-Off" happen?

BOWENS: We were actually recommended by Cedric Dent, who used to be in Take 6, and - you know, we got a call from the producers of the show. And...

MARTIN: ...How had he heard you? Do you know?

BOWENS: ...Afro Blue actually performed with Take 6 at one point, yeah. And so he called, I guess - I don't know, he talked to them, they called us and said, do you want to audition? And we said yes, we auditioned...

MARTIN: ...Did anybody say no?

BOWENS: ...No.

MARTIN: No, people are looking at me like, are you crazy?

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: You were - you didn't win, but you were fan favorites. You came in fourth, and that is a big field of contestants. So was it a happy feeling, kind of frustrating?

WITHERS: It was...

MARTIN: ...Danielle?

WITHERS: ...It was, for Afro, I mean for Afro Blue at the time, and Traces of Blue now - we basically didn't really think we'd make it as far as we did on the show. I mean, some of us had watched "The Sing-Off" in the past - and we know it's a pop show, like, you go on the show and you're singing these popular songs from the radio and, you know, we were a jazz ensemble from Howard University. You know, we're using our minds, everything is so calculated and, you know, there's nothing really poppy about what we come from. And so we were really excited to have made it onto the show at all. And so for us to have made it to fourth place, we were so grateful.

MARTIN: So don't draw anything from the fact that I'm directing this question to you. I'm going to just ask you this - diva is a musical term for a reason, and I was just...

(LAUGHTER)

WITHERS: ...Oh, man.

MARTIN: ...I was just wondering if it was hard for - I can hear each of your voices individually. Like, I heard you when you were warming up and I can hear because I'm here with you, physically. I can see when each of you is contributing, and I just wonder - was it hard for any of you to agree to be part of an ensemble? Because each of you is really an artist in your own right?

WITHERS: Yeah, we definitely all are artists in our own right but we love each other so much, and have performed together in other ensembles for years, and had been performing for years together before "The Sing-Off," and so it definitely wasn't a difficult thing to slide into and to get used to, if you will.

Granted, "The Sing-Off," that competition was definitely very different. There were definitely many challenges that came along with it. You know, having to really, really learn each other's personalities under different circumstances, sometimes very difficult ones. But it definitely...

MARTIN: ...I'm looking for body language here just to see what I can see but I'm not picking up anything so far.

WITHERS: But we love each other. And we love singing together. And so that definitely wasn't something that was difficult at all.

MARTIN: So speaking of singing together, let's hear another, shall we?

BOWENS: One, two, three.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FEEL GOOD")

TRACES OF BLUE: (Singing) As the sun smiles on my face, I feel good. Nothing ins in my way. And as the moon begins to show, I got to let the whole world know that I feel good, that I feel great every day. I feel good and I feel great each and every day.

MARTIN: How do you go about picking material?

BOWENS: Well, we all talk about it all the time. You know, it could come - it could end up becoming a series of emails that we're annoyed by. But we, I mean, we look at, you know, the charts, we think about what we like, and we just go for it, really. That last tune, Christie actually wrote...

MARTIN: ...Oh, OK.

BOWENS: ...She did the arrangement herself and we just tried to sing what she put on paper.

MARTIN: OK, Christie, so what was your inspiration?

DASHIELL: I think what inspired me at the time - I was in grad school and I was probably having a bad day, and I just needed to tell myself that I feel good and I feel great, and to, you know, be loving to everyone that I meet, because...

MARTIN: ...There are passages of scripture there that I think people recognize from Corinthians. So...

DASHIELL: ...Yes ma'am, yes ma'am. So that was - I guess that was my inspiration. Just, you know, loving and being kind to everyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I FEEL GOOD")

TRACES OF BLUE: (Singing) Every girl around too fine, there's such a (unintelligible) but out of window I see nothing but violence and war. But as we go help everyone to know to spread peace and joy. It could make a difference in our world give the strength hold. Fill our hearts with love and the greatest of these is love, and the greatest of these is love, and the greatest of these is love.

MARTIN: You're all young - I have to say it, I'm sorry. You probably don't feel very young at this point, but you are. But jazz is not associated with your age group, I just have to be honest about it, and I just wonder, do people ever - do you ever feel like they don't understand it? Do people appreciate it? What about - John?

KENNIEBREW: It is always a challenge to find out how to make the genre itself accessible to this generation. But, like you said, all of us really are still a part of this generation, which means that we don't listen to just jazz. We're influenced by just about every other kind of music that you can think of. And a lot of the elements that are in those music, that makes those genres so accessible, so attractive to people, they often find their way into what we do anyway. So that's probably what I love most about this group - we're able to offer jazz to you on a plate with a whole lot of sides that you really like. So you're like, OK, well, I'll try this main course, because I know I'm going to love the mashed potatoes, you know, that kind of thing. So it's worked out...

WITHERS: Good analogy.

KENNIEBREW: Yeah, that was pretty good John.

(LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP MEMBER: Wow.

KENNIEBREW: So it's worked out pretty well.

MARTIN: Well, thank you all so much for coming. I'm excited to see what you do next. I think you're going to grace us with one more song as we say goodbye for now. What are we going to hear?

BOWENS: Change...

MARTIN: ..."Change is going to come?" "A Change is Going to Come"?

BOWENS: Yeah, we can do that.

MARTIN: OK, all right. That goes to the roots. OK, Traces of Blue joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studios. Thank you all so much.

BOWENS: Thank you.

WITHERS: Thank you.

ROBINSON: Thanks.

DASHIELL: Thank you for having us.

REEVES: Thanks.

BERKON: Thank you for having us.

KENNIEBREW: Thank you.

MARTIN: "A Change is Going to Come," here it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GOING TO COME")

TRACES OF BLUE: (Singing) I was born by a river, oh my In this little old tent. Oh, just like this river, I've been running ever since. It's been alone. Lord, I'm coming but I know, but I know, a change is gotta come, now

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A CHANGE IS GOING TO COME")

TRACES OF BLUE: (Singing) A change is gonna come, maybe not today maybe not tomorrow but I know a change is gonna come. Change is gonna to come. Change is gonna to come. My Change is gonna to come. Change is gonna to come. Change is gonna to come on day. Change is gonna to come Change is gonna to come, come.

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