Mondays with Morgan: Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition 2023

In this week’s edition of Mondays with Morgan, jazz journalist Morgan Enos reviewed the latest iteration of the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition at NJPAC in Newark, New Jersey. Links to the venue’s and finalists’ websites can be found at the bottom of this article.

Five finalists' headshots in a composite promo poster

Emma Smith had come a long way for the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition – more than 3,400 miles, to be exact, as she’s a Londoner. And when the vocalist took that hallowed stage on 19 November, she acknowledged the enormity of the task at hand.

“My goodness – is this real? Are you real? Am I real? What’s going on?” she cheekily emoted to the sold-out Victoria Theater at NJPAC in Newark, New Jersey. In her next thought, she could have spoken for all five finalists: “Preparing these three songs to try and convey all of my love and dedication for this music, and the essence of who I am, is a very challenging thing to do.”

“Challenging” might be an understatement. Consider how a leading comedian must toil to not only craft an hour’s worth of material, but conjure the illusion that it’s tossed-off, extemporaneous. Now think of the breadth of the jazz canon – and a singer’s entire life lived within it – and how vexing it must be to compress it all into 15 minutes.

Yet Smith did so with aplomb, and so did her fellow finalists: Darynn Dean, Bianca Love, Tyreek McDole, and Ekep Nkwelle.

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Five finalists on stage together at competition
L-R: Bianca Love, Darynn Dean, Tyreek McDole, Ekep Nkwelle, Emma Smith. Photo credit: Shakiru Bola Okoya

Smith led off with a vigorous, gender-reversed rendition of George Gershwin’s “But Not For Me,” in which she playfully toggled between registers.

She followed it with a shout-out to Charles Mingus – to a tepid response, as per her evocation of the polarising Angry Man of Jazz – and a take on his suitably Ellingtonian ballad “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love.” And Smith capped it off with the strongest tune of the set – one Vaughan herself once nailed to the wall, with a chart by Benny Carter: “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die.”

Emma Smith singing at the microphone wearing a magenta dress and light shining behind her
Emma Smith. Photo credit: Shakiru Bola Okoya.

Out of five, Smith didn’t end up placing first, second, or third. But when this writer sat down for an interview with her backstage, there wasn’t an iota of hard feelings. Rather, Smith seemed more interested in living up to the credo Vaughan embraced.

“This is a big deal for a little North London Jew to come out to the big city and sing,” she tells LondonJazz. “To be in the final five out of nearly 300 applicants is a massive motivation to keep persevering in this artform, and keep growing and deepening my relationship with it, so I can more fully and authentically show up each and every time.”

Which seemed to be the prevailing attitude, as cutthroat as the jazz scene can be behind the scenes. “It’s not sports; there’s no winner,” Darryn Dean told LondonJazz afterwards. “There are people who come to the concert and have a good time and have fun. And everyone wins.”

With the judges looking on – bassist and composer Christian McBride, vocalists Jane Monheit and Lizz Wright, singer/songwriter Madeleine Peyroux, and WBGO building block Al Pryor – the so-called Sassys kicked off with Ekep Nkwelle.

A Cameroonian-American who picked up sticks from D.C. to New York, Nkwelle got the afternoon started with a take on Max Roach’s “All Africa,” from the drum titan’s 1960 salvo We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite.

While slightly unvarnished in this context, Nkwelle exhibited an impressive sense of control, with a humming stage presence. As well as a conspicuous lack of vibrato, which tends to be part and parcel regarding this form of expression.

That changed for its follow-up, Duke Ellington’s “Solitude” – in which Nkwelle’s true strength proved to be balladeering. Her facility for vibrato became obvious, but she didn’t douse “Solitude” with the stuff; it was tastefully employed.

Ditto Nkwelle’s aching upper register, and commanding lower range – as well as her cutting, punctuative yowl. She finished up with a shuffle blues, where she turned over stock Yeahs and I got the blueses and see see riders as if to examine their facets in the light.

Darynn Dean outside headshot with sun on face and eyes closed
Darynn Dean. Photo credit: Shakiru Bola Okoya

Emma Smith followed her – the lone Englishwoman of the day. And following Smith was Darryn Dean, a born-and-raised Angeleno. Dean possessed a lighter, more gossamer tone, which proved incisive on the top end of her range.

Dean opened with Rodgers and Hart’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” and her seemingly guileless and unscripted interstitial banter set her apart. “[How a song] can just turn your world upside down!” she exclaimed to the crowd. “It’s been amazing to be here – to be alive, to be young, and to be free.”

Sacha Distel’s simmering “The Good Life” came next, to arresting effect; when she leaned into the why in “in case you wonder why,” her timbre cut like a shard of glass. She closed with the ‘30s standard “Beautiful Love,” throwing down some scatting – and while that mode arguably didn’t suit her as much as balladry, her execution landed.

Next came Tyreek McDole. Despite only singing jazz for five years, he captivated the audience – partly due to the droves of loved ones present, roaring their approval. He launched in with the 1937 number “September in the Rain,” through his high-thread-count delivery, and followed it with an old standby in Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.”

Which would seemingly prove ballads are his strong suit – but then, a heel-turn into “Every Day I Have the Blues,” funnelled through Joe Williams, complete with an audience clap-along. Clearly, McDole doesn’t just have a way with the blues; he has a sinuous and companionable way with them.

The final contestant was Bianca Love, a New Orleanian inspired by everyone from Charlie Parker to the brass bands of her home city. Her opening of “I Thought About You” failed to register much of an impression, good or bad. But “The Man I Love” delivered; Love’s southeastern twang imbued her performance with both a regionality and a bite.

Love brought it home with Billie Holiday’s “Fine and Mellow.” “My last song delves into a deeply profound experience that happened to me a few years ago,” she explained onstage, without further detail. “It wasn’t a good experience, but I wanted to turn it into something beautiful.”

Tyreek McDole singing on stage
Tyreek McDole. Photo credit: Shakiru Bola Okoya

Like Smith, Love didn’t place first, second, or third. Ekep Knwelle came in third. Darynn Dean came in second. And Tyreek Mcdole came in first. (Remember, this is only his fifth year singing in this idiom.) The grand prize is $5,000 in cash; second place gets you $1,500; third place is $500.

As prestigious as the honour might be – and how falling short might lend itself to demoralisation – Smith remains unperturbed as per her trajectory in 2024. “The visa comes through in April,” she explains, and she’s raring to perform club dates in America. “And introduce myself to this new, big land of dreams,” Smith says. “And opportunity.”

“I’m in Enfield, and the next minute, I’m on stage in New Jersey,” Smith continues. “Enfield will mean something to the readers.” As she explains, it’s a “crummy part of town.” But regardless of where she hails from, Smith promises to prevail. So do all the contestants, wherever they placed. The placement is beside the point; the music is the aim.

Clearly, this music’s in a good place – arguably, a better place than it’s been in years. And to answer Smith’s query onstage at NJPAC: yes, this is very real.

LINKS: NJPAC’s website

Darynn Dean’s website

Bianca Love’s website

Tyreek McDole’s website

Ekep Nkwelle’s website

Emma Smith’s website

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