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SASSY Award co-winner Tawanda releases her debut album “Smile”

Jeff Xander

As a co-winner in the 9th Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, Tawanda shares her talents on her uplifting debut recording, Smile, a collection of evergreens reimagined alongside new standards associated with Sting, Donny Hathaway, Dianne Reeves and Maureen McGovern. It's the first chapter in a recording career that's quite easy to love. Tawanda will perform songs from the new release at Birdland in NYC on November 17, and she returns to the scene of the sublime as a guest vocalist at this year's SASSY awards at NJPAC on November 20.

I spoke with her about her evolution as a jazz singer and her studied choice of repertoire.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview Highlights:

Gary Walker: There are some wonderful music on this new recording that came out on the 26th although there’s a couple of singles that are already out and people are talking about Tawanda. And I’m thinking some out-of-the-way tunes as well, like “Bridges.” I first heard “Bridges” when Mark Murphy did it.

Tawanda: Yes, I’ve only listened to Milton Nascimento and I actually had the privilege of seeing his last show ever in Los Angeles in the U.S. Have you ever heard of Jazz is Dead?

I have, absolutely.

They’re putting on some really incredible shows. He was such a joy to observe and he’s so sweet and tender and that really comes through in “Bridges.” I don’t think anyone has quite the same way with words and storytelling quite like Milton Nascimento.

Well, I’m so lucky to be me. You feel pretty lucky these days, don’t you? Leonard Bernstein from “On the Town.”

Yes, I mean gratitude is a practice. I’m definitely working on that. I’m definitely grateful for where I am now although I think I have a ways to go before I’m completely grounded. Those words to me and singing these songs, it’s really medicine for me. They’re like manifestations.

In the middle of “Bridges” what language is that you’re singing?

That’s Portugese. That should be one of my second languages. I’ve been telling George [Klabin], I want to sing more Portugese. And I really want to work on that. I think I really want to learn the language so I can communicate with my dad’s side of the family. I think a good way of doing that is learning music. Learning Bossa Nova and all of that.

Well, we talk about standards or show tunes, we talk about “Lucky To Be Me”– the very inspirational tune that first came into being in the late ‘60s. Those of you that have rings on your tree similar to mine, you who were there in the ‘60s will remember what a tumultuous time it was. And that’s what was responsible for the tune, “Sack Full of Dreams.” Terry McFarland wrote that tune in the late ‘60s. I’m trying to think who I heard do that tune. Was it Donny Hathaway maybe?

Yes, that’s right.

I think that’s the first time I ever heard that tune was when Donny Hathaway sang it. He just had a way with words and with stories. Many times for a jazz singer, for somebody approaching the music, the stories sometimes get lost. But not in Tawanda’s world. They don’t get lost at all because that’s what I hear first. Is this wonderful story being told to me? Talk about “Out of this World” with Gary Meek on the saxophone. You and he going back and forth. Just sparkling. Or the music of Sting. You know where we put the sun against the moon. Let’s see who wins that little battle there, right?

And those arrangements by Tamir Hendelman are really, really special.

The other pianist on “The Date,” John DiMartino, will be your pianist upcoming on the 17th of November when you perform at Birdland in New York City. I would imagine this new recording on Resonance is going to be the focus that night with a few twists and turns. It’s jazz music, right? “A Child Is Born.” I would imagine that George himself was at the Vanguard when the Thad Jones/ Mel Lewis orchestra first performed that tune. A very young Dee Dee Bridgewater used to sing that tune, way, way back when. You do such a marvelous version of it on your new recording.

Thank you. It’s such a tricky song. There’s so much space in it. It was one we really had to work through slowly and it’s so tender and you’re really speaking to and about this sweet tender child. I really had to put myself in an expectant being’s shoes and really sing about the preciousness of this being. In many ways I was speaking about myself. I was speaking about my loved ones. I was speaking about the world. It was a beautiful one to sing. I’ll be performing that one in New York as well so I’m excited for that.

Early in our conversation today you mentioned your own music. Tell me about some of the stories that are centered in your own music. What do you like to write about?

When I was 16 and 17, I was in a pretty tumultuous relationship that really opened my eyes to the way that…I was definitely quite young to be in a relationship of that kind. But I think that it brought with it a lot of insight. I write a lot of music about that because I was really inspired during that time to write very honestly about relationships and about the nuances of being younger and not knowing things.

These days I write more. I’m in a new relationship – the healthiest I’ve been in – and I write a lot about that and about the peace that it brings me and the joy of being for once in my life feeling like, okay, there’s love in the world and I’m worthy of this.

In jazz radio, great announcers are distinguished by their ability to convey the spontaneity and passion of the music. Gary Walker is such an announcer, and his enthusiasm for this music greets WBGO listeners every morning. This winner of the 1996 Gavin Magazine Jazz Radio Personality of the Year award has hosted the morning show each weekday from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. And, by his own admission, he's truly having a great time.