Meet the Finalists: Five to Root For at the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition

Nov 8, 2017

The sixth annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition takes place this Sunday, Nov. 12, at NJPAC, as part of the TD James Moody Jazz Festival.

The event, which is open to vocalists not signed to a major record label — men as well as women, for the first time this year — serves as a strong engine for discovery.

Several past finalists have taken their place along the first tier of jazz singers, including Cyrille Aimee, who won in 2012, and Jazzmeia Horn, who won the following year. Last year’s winner was Deelee Dubé, a prominent voice in her native London.

The competition will be hosted this year by WBGO’s Rhonda Hamilton. And our own Gary Walker will be one of the judges. Whether you plan to attend the competition or just want to keep up with the young talent on the scene, we’ve assembled a quick, unbiased guide to the five finalists, with one standout track apiece. Here is the rundown, in alphabetical order. 

Tiffany Austin

Tiffany Austin
Credit courtesy of the Artist

There’s a chance you already know Austin’s name: her 2015 debut, a Hoagy Carmichael tribute titled Nothing But Soul, received favorable reviews. (The critic Kevin Whitehead, reviewing it on NPR’s Fresh Air, called Austin “a singer to keep an ear on.”) With a second album now in the can, made with a rhythm section featuring Cyrus Chestnut on piano, Austin comes to the competition with plenty of experience. You hear it on the track that opens Nothing But Soul, a loping, almost laconic perambulation through “Stardust.”

Christine Fawson

Christine Fawson
Credit Courtesy of the Artist

As you can see from the photograph, Fawson is at least a double threat: she plays trumpet at an extremely high level, notably with the DIVA Jazz Orchestra, in addition to singing. She was a decade-long member of the vocal jazz group Syncopation, and has three albums to her name, the most recent of which is Here Now, released last year. That album concludes with this track, “The Nearness of You,” which Fawson introduces with a motif on her horn before singing the melody, in a clear, unhurried beam.

Fabio Giacalone

Fabio Giacalone
Credit courtesy of the Artist

The first-ever male finalist in the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition is this Brazilian-born, Italian-raised crooner, who graduated from the Berklee College of Music last year. He won third prize in the Shure Montreux Jazz Voice Competition 2016, and participated this spring in the Montreux Jazz Academy. For jazzfolk, “They Say It’s Wonderful” will forever be a song associated with Johnny Hartman, but Giacalone doesn’t attempt to compete on that field, choosing a delivery that feels more spiritually kin to a singer like Caetano Veloso.

Quiana Lynell

Quiana Lydell
Credit courtesy of the Artist

Soul is more than a sideline for Lynell, who grew up in Tyler, Texas and now lives in New Orleans. Among the jazz artists in her corner are trumpeter Terence Blanchard; along with pianist Jon Cowherd, he is a producer on her debut album-in-progress, Dream Chasing. This version of “Just Squeeze Me (But Please Don't Tease Me),” from her 2016 EP Loving Me, reframes the Duke Ellington tune as an R&B slow drag – but with a tailgate trombone solo, just to  keep the lineage clear.

Tatiana LadyMay Mayfield

Tatiana LadyMay Mayfield
Credit Courtesy of the Artist

Mayfield is another multi-hyphenate: she plays piano and trombone, and teaches music theory. But her singing is the driving focus of her career, which has yielded two albums, From All Directions (2009) and A Portrait Of LadyMay (2012), the latter of which begins with this summer-breezy track, “For You.” Mayfield is no stranger to the pressure of an event like this; she was also a finalist in the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition, in 2010. It should go without saying that she’s a more fearsome competitor today.