The finals of the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition often emphasize jazz standards. The five promising jazz vocalists who vie for cash prizes and a recording contract at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark perform material from the Great American Songbook—tunes that Vaughan herself infused with operatic richness over a career that lasted nearly a half century.
Yet one pivotal performance during the extremely competitive and entertaining sixth annual contest in Vaughan’s hometown on Nov. 12—held as part of the TD James Moody Jazz Festival—was a bawdy blues number.
As Quiana Lynell, a Loyola University New Orleans adjunct music professor from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, returned to the stage to sing her last song as a finalist, she cheerfully announced: “I’m about to turn this [hall] into a juke joint, if you don’t mind.”
Indeed, after an afternoon of mostly lucid lyrics set to poignant harmonies and breathtaking melodies, the audience in NJPAC’s intimate Victoria Theater seemed ripe for a change of pace. Lynell then ripped through “Hip Shakin’ Mama,” a 12-bar blues that one of her musical heroes, New Orleans soul icon Irma Thomas, had covered years ago. But Lynell didn’t simply grind out a blues; she painted a picture, shading and coloring the lyrics with strong vocal technique honed through her classical training. When the song concluded, she owned the room—and was on her way to being No. 1 on the judges’ scorecards.
“I am at home in the blues,” Lynell told DownBeat after capturing the $5,000 first prize cash award and an offer to record for the Concord label. “The foundation of jazz is the blues. Just play the blues and you will be all right.”
With her victory, Lynell joined the ranks of previous winners like Cyrille Aimée (2012) and Jazzmeia Horn (2013).
Second place went to Tatiana “LadyMay” Mayfield of Fort Worth, Texas, who received a $1,500 cash prize. Christine Fawson, a faculty member at Boston’s Berklee College of Music who both sang and took solos on trumpet, finished third and took home $500.
The other finalists were New York-based Fabio Giacalone, the first man to perform in the competition under a rule change this year allowing in male singers, and Northern California’s Tiffany Austin, whose 2015 album, Nothing But Soul, received strong reviews.
A mother of two, Lynell said she gave up a full-time job as an elementary school music teacher last year to focus on building a career as a jazz singer while teaching part-time at Loyola. “I want to be Dianne Reeves,” she said of her career ambitions.
Lynell’s profile is on the rise. In May, she performed at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. Trumpeter Terence Blanchard has invited Lynell to perform as a guest with his quintet in a series of collaborative outings with symphony orchestras.
The singing competition was open to solo vocalists of all nationalities who were not signed to a major record label. Participants submitted audio tracks online. Through three rounds of public voting with 7,500 votes cast, the field was narrowed to five candidates. The 145 eligible entrants represented 23 different countries.
The judges for the finals were Gary Walker, a veteran host for jazz radio station WBGO; singers Ann Hampton Callaway, Vanessa Rubin and Will Downing; and composer, bandleader and drummer T.S. Monk, the son of Thelonious Monk, a timely addition to the panel during the iconic jazz pianist’s centennial year.
Backing the singers was a trio led by pianist and musical director Sergio Salvatore, with Buddy Williams on drums and Gregory Jones on bass.
Under this year’s format, each singer performed two songs and then returned to sing one more.
Lynell said her only strategy in the competition was to be herself. She staked out her turf gradually, starting with a low-gear rendition of a combination of “Be My Husband” and an original composition, “Love Me,” in which she showed an ability to inhabit a song and interpret lyrics expressively. She added to that impression during an uptempo, exhilarating rendition of “After You’ve Gone.”
Fawson—a distinctive performer with compelling dynamism—topped off a trio of exciting and entertaining songs with a mesmerizing performance of “Fools Rush In.” The impact of her trumpet on her singing was undeniable. As Fawson sang behind the beat and held long notes, she imbued the narrative with a seamless continuity that enhanced her believability.
The horn’s prominence in her vocal stylings also was evident in the harmonic and rhythmic structure of her scat-sung lines on “I’ve Got The World On A String,” and in her embrace of doubling with Salvatore on the bebop-infused lines of “What Is This Thing Called Love?”
Mayfield notably served up a likeable medium-tempo reading of “On Green Dolphin Street” that suited her naturally sweet vocal tones and passion for provocative phrasing.
Although he didn’t finish among the top three, Giacalone, born in Brazil and raised in Italy, proved himself to be a bold adventurer willing to live on the edge. He started off with “My Shining Hour,” delivering the first few lines a cappella.
Despite Austin’s failure to make it to the final three, she showed the strength of her husky voice on a raucous version of “Better Git It In Your Soul.”
For information on Lynell’s upcoming performances, including a special holiday-themed show in Detroit with Blanchard’s quintet on Dec. 23, visit her website. DB