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Co-Winners Top Sarah Vaughan Vocal Competition

By Michael Barris 

Great jazz singers find their voices by breaking rules. That was evident on June 6, as Gabrielle Cavassa and Tawanda Suessbrich-Joaquim, two young singers with distinctively personal approaches to interpreting standards, shared the top prize at the 9th annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, an event delayed twice by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Singing before only the judges and a smattering of guests at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, as well as an online audience that watched afterwards on Facebook, Cavassa wielded her light, supple voice like a paintbrush as she colorfully played with time, lyrics, phrasing and melody during her set. Suessbrich-Joaquim’s voice, by contrast, was like a horn, pulling off acrobatic rhythmic conceits with strength and authority as she mined the beauty of her husky lower register.

The competition is also known as the Sassy Awards, a nod to the nickname of singer Sarah Vaughan (1924–’90), a NEA Jazz Master and DownBeat Hall of Fame inductee who hailed from Newark.

Cavassa, 26, a full-time musician based in New Orleans, and Suessbrich-Joaquim, 25, a Los Angeles resident who supports her music career with health and wellness industry work, each received a $5,000 cash prize.

On all three of their songs, the two singers — the first co-winners in the competition’s history — honored the spirit of innovation that is at the heart of jazz.

“I love time (in jazz) because it allows me to break it. And I love words because it allows me to change them. It’s just fun for me,” said Cavassa, a 2018 Sassy Awards finalist whose 2020 debut album, she said, was partly shaped by her first Vaughan competition experience. She opened with “Easy To Love,” followed with “Never Let Me Go,” on which she accompanied herself on guitar, and closed her set with “I’ve Never Been In Love Before.”

Suessbrich-Joaquim, who sang “All Or Nothing At All,” “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry,” and “T’ain’t Nobody’s Business If I Do,” told DownBeat she prepared for the competition by listening to horn players. “I was trying to be informed by the horns, to influence my scat and my improvs,” she said, adding that she took inspiration from the work of Freddie Hubbard and John Coltrane’s quartet.

With their shared victory at NJPAC, Cavassa and Suessbrich-Joaquim join the ranks of past winners such as Cyrille Aimée (2012), Jazzmeia Horn (2013), Arianna Neikrug (2015), Laurin Talese (2018) and last year’s winner, Samara Joy McLendon.

This year, third place went to Benny Benack III, a New York-based vocalist and trumpeter who plays piano and sings in residence at the Carlyle Hotel’s Bemelmans Bar.

The other finalist was Philadelphia-based Hailey Brinnel, who has performed with artists such as Ingrid Jensen, Anat Cohen and Charles Neville.

There were originally five announced finalists, but Andrea Miller of Costa Mesa, California, dropped out due to COVID-related concerns, a spokeswoman said.

The singing competition — part of the TD Jazz Series at NJPAC — was open to solo vocalists who were not signed to a major record label. Contestants from more than 26 countries submitted audio tracks online. Through public voting, the field was narrowed.

The judges for the finals were bassist Christian McBride; jazz vocalist Carmen Lundy; vocalist Vanessa Rubin; producer Chuck Mitchell; and Newark public radio station WBGO’s interim president and CEO Robert Ottenhoff. Accompanying the singers was a trio led by pianist and musical director Sergio Salvatore, with bassist Gregory Jones and drummer Buddy Williams.

The return of the competition, albeit delayed by more than six months, was a refreshing change after fear of the coronavirus bit hard into the music business.

“The heart of our music is improvisation. And, boy, haven’t we had to improvise the last 15 months?” said Gary Walker, the host for the finals and a popular WBGO on-air personality, as the proceedings got under way. “We’re making that transition, though, from the vaccine to the jazz scene.”

In another sign of recovery in the jazz world, Walker said the 10th annual Vaughan competition will be held on Nov. 14, as the event returns to its traditional autumn time slot.

With no audible audience in the hall, this year’s proceedings seemed to have more in common with a recording session than a live concert. But Suessbrich-Joaquim, who is still new to the competition scene, said she found comfort in the quiet mood.

“It worked really well. It felt big, but also intimate at the same time,” she said.

Under the contest format, each singer performed three songs. Brinnel kicked things off with Cole Porter’s “Easy To Love,” and followed with “You Go To My Head” and “Every Day I Have The Blues.”

Following her was Benack, whose vocal quality brought Harry Connick Jr. to mind, blowing trumpet and singing on “In A Mellow Tone,” “I’m A Fool To Want You” and “Benny’s From Heaven,” a satirical piece about the singer’s origins based on the standard “Pennies From Heaven.” DB


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