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Lucia Gutiérrez Rebolloso wins SASSY vocal jazz award at NJPAC

This year’s edition of the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition lived up to its descriptor with four of the five finalists possessing very strong international bona fides. Performing with remarkable spirit and energy, Mexican singer Lucia Gutiérrez Rebolloso took home the winning cash prize of $5,000. Her three-song set featured plenty of scat, dancing and even some zapateado (Mexican version of folk tap dance).

Finishing second was Ekep Nkwelle, the Washington DC-based singer with roots in Cameroon. Veteran vocalist and songwriter Allan Harris won third prize. The other impressive contestants were Kristin Lash from Slovakia and the Armenian-American singer Lucy Yeghiazaryan. (To view Steven Sussman's photos from the event, see the Gallery above.)

The panel of judges consisted of Maria Schneider, Regina Carter, T.S. Monk, Christian McBride and WBGO’s Pat Prescott. Performing while the judging panel convened were the 2021 co-winners Tawanda and Gabrielle Cavassa, who competed at last year's event without a live audience.

The competition was created in 2012 by former record executive Larry Rosen, who founded and ran GRP for many years. He partnered with the newly built NJPAC to create a competition along the lines of the Thelonious Monk Competition, as well as the Jacksonville Jazz Festival Piano Competition and a few others. But this one would focus solely on vocals, a specialty that would enable the event to over time establish itself as the premier award for jazz singers. The Monk Institute didn’t ignore singers, but it recognized jazz vocals just five times over its 30-year history. Thus the SASSY award found its unique spot in the jazz ecosystem and ended up pushing forward artists such as Cyrille Aimee, Jazzmeia Horn and Samara Joy, just to name a few of the first-place winners who went on to successful careers.

Given the location of the venue in the home city of Sarah Vaughan and located on a street named after the legendary vocalist, the name of the competition was almost set in stone. Given Vaughan’s incredible artistry across genres, the competition’s naming also set the highest bar for participating vocalists. With WBGO located across the street, the station’s involvement as a sponsor and co-presenter was an obvious fit. I don’t know when WBGO’s Gary Walker took over as host of the event, but this year he not only kept the trains running but also entertained us with his asides and commentary. All too often in competitions and award shows, the already jazz obsessed audience is bombarded with speechifying about jazz being America’s greatest art form and how important it is to support the music and blah, blah, blah. Truly preaching to the choir.

However, Walker somehow dispensed with the ponderous pontification and merely pointed out in down home fashion all the things that brought the audience and the musicians together on this occasion, namely the music and its inherent spontaneity. He took care of the introductions, but also managed to riff on everything from a baby crying to the consumption of fluids during intermission. I once asked the comedian Alonzo Bodden if he could teach someone to be a stand-up comic. “Yes, if someone is funny, I can show them the mechanics of stand-up comedy,” he told me. “But I can’t teach somebody to be funny.” Gary is funny, both jocular and jovial. It helped to make the three hours zoom past.

In looking at the impressive list of past winners, I have to think that part of the credit for their subsequent success should go to the judges, who year after year brought their prescient take to talent evaluation. Interestingly, there were no vocalists on this year’s judging panel. Perhaps that led to more of an emphasis on musicality, but who knows? Having talked with judges for past competitions, I’ve learned just how divergent the opinions can be and how difficult it can be to reach a consensus. Each finalist performed three songs with a house band of Sergio Salvatore (piano and music director), Gregory M. Jones (bass) and Gerry Brown (drums), who did get some rehearsal time with each vocalist, so there weren’t any slipups or missed cues. In addition, each contestant was introduced by a short video with interview excerpts and a cappella vocals.

Ekep Nkwelle’s set opened the show and she, like several of the finalists, used the approach of starting a song as a duet with the bassist, before jumping into an uptempo rendition with the whole band. Nkwelle got a laugh during her opening number of “Never Will I Marry” with a spoken aside of “Sorry, Mommy.” Nkwelle certainly has jazz chops and at various points one could hear the influence of Betty Carter in that song. For her second tune, she chose Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Dindi,” again opening with a duet, this time with the piano. Her scatting had a powerful Afro-Cuban sensibility, similar to what Dianne Reeves does with her Brazilian tunes. Nkwelle closed the set with a fiery version of “C.C. Rider Blues,” a song made famous by Ma Rainey. Singing a jazz standard, a Brazilian classic and a downhome blues, Nkwelle deftly showed her range. When she left the stage, Walker said to the audience, “Now that’s how you open a show.”

Clad in a spectacular gown well worthy of the Oscars’ red carpet, Kristin Lash opened with “There Will Never Be Another You,” giving a little solo space to Salvatore, something that often doesn’t happen in competitions as the performers feel the need to show what they’ve got. But interaction with a band matters, especially in the eyes of non-vocalist judges. Lash did a lot of scatting on the second song, “I’ll Remember April,” and closed with a beautiful arrangement of Strayhorn’s “Lush Life” in a duet with Salvatore. Throughout Lash sang with deft precision and a unique tone in the high register.

Not only the sole male singer in the competition, Allan Harris is also certain to be the only contestant who saw Sarah Vaughan perform live. Harris explained to the audience that although he grew up in Brooklyn, as a kid he would come over to Harlem to hang at his Aunt Kate’s soul food restaurant around the corner from the Apollo, where he’d get a firsthand view of the stars of the day, including Ellington, Basie and of course Vaughan herself. For his set, Harris stuck to standards (“The More I See You” and “I Remember You”) which he sang in classic jazz crooner style, ala Billy Eckstine or Johnny Hartman. Introducing his closer “Mean to Me,” Harris said, “Gotta swing it,” and indeed he did, adding some scat to the mix, as well as giving some space to the band. No surprise, given his long history of leading bands of various sizes and instrumentation, that Harris appeared relaxed and comfortable onstage.

Lucia Gutiérrez Rebolloso nearly bounced onto the stage with seemingly boundless energy. She opened with yet another duet with the bassist on “You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To” leading to an uptempo rendition with room for lyrical interpretation and scat. But she really brought the spirited scat to the Charlie Parker tune "Donna Lee" sung at an appropriately fast tempo. Rebolloso introduced “What A Diff'rence A Day Makes” by explaining that the Dinah Washington hit song had actually been written several years earlier in Spanish by a Mexican songwriter (Maria Grever). Rebolloso’s version was a knockout, using a bolero tempo and doing the first verse in English and the rest in Spanish. She also tap danced, Mexican style on a wood block, pounding out the rhythms with Brown on drums. Rebolloso has been performing with family and friends in Mexico since she was six and it showed in the way she not only fronted the band but played with them.

The accomplished vocalist Lucy Yeghiazaryan went on last, which can be either an advantage or disadvantage. She sang “Come Dance With Me” with real verve and soul. Lately she’s been collaborating with the soulful saxophonist Houston Person, who had a long musical relationship with Etta Jones, a history that Yeghiazaryan has embraced. She displayed her great sense of time with the paean to NYC, “That’s No Joke,” and closed with an exquisite version of “The Very Thought of You.” However nervous she may have been, it never showed during a strong and confident performance.

While the judges convened to make the very tough decision of choosing the first, second and third place winners, the two co-winners from the 2021 competition, Gabrielle Cavassa and Tawanda, performed one song each. Because that edition of the competition was held virtually, neither was able to perform in front of a live audience. For her number, Cavassa came out with a guitar, which she said she had taught herself to play during the pandemic, and sang “You Go to My Head.” She talked about how challenging the competition was, but also about how she had become close with her fellow contestants, including Tawanda, with whom she shared the top prize. Then her colleague Tawanda did an appropriately swinging version of “It Don’t Mean A Thing,” in which she traded fours with Brown.

When the judges returned to present the winners with their plaques, there was healthy applause for each finalist. As Rebolloso’s name was announced as the first-place winner, she had a look of shock. But I don’t think many in the audience had the same reaction. Her performance that day was dynamic, fresh and singular, and truly reflected the word “International” in the competition’s name. In her interview with Walker for WBGO and in the video intro that day, Rebolloso came across as both humble and self-assured...a nice combination.

An award like the SASSY is truly a feather in the cap, something to be displayed and touted, albeit in the present tense, because awards like feathers are easily blown away. What matters is the cap itself, a more permanent representation of what the artist has developed in their craft. Having witnessed dozens of competitions like this one over the last 30 years, I can attest that the losers can be just as formidable as the winners.

For example, looking at the results of the prestigious Thelonious Monk Competition, which every year featured the greatest panel of artists judging whatever instrument (including vocals) was featured, we see notable first place winners such as Cecile McLorin Salvant, Marcus Roberts, Joshua Redman, Jazzmeia Horn, Melissa Aldana and Ambrose Akinmusire, each of whom made their mark in the jazz world during the ensuing years. But we also see also-rans who became stars like Emmet Cohen (third place in 2011), Cyrille Aimee (third place in 2010), Gerald Clayton (second place in 2006), Orrin Evans (second place in 1999), Jane Monheit (second place in 1998), Roberta Gambarini (third place in 1998) and Chris Potter (tied for third place in 1991), just to name a few. Look for yourself at the competition archive for the Mok Competition to see many more diamonds in the rough, as well as winners dwelling in obscurity.

Perhaps the greatest example of the vagaries of jazz competition judging was the 1987 edition of the Monk Competition, in which the late and great Joey DeFrancesco finished in fourth place behind Rob van Bavel. Yes, Joey D was in fourth place. No, I don’t know who Mr. Van Bavel is either. I do know who Mr. DeFrancesco is, thanks to what he accomplished in the ensuing 30+ years and that’s what matters. In any case, that list of judging misses is a short list of the wrong kind. One that well illustrates that these competitions are more about inspiring greatness rather than recognizing it. And that the real value is in what the competition entrant does in the future, rather than on the one day.

When people ask me during these competitions whom I thought was the best, I always answer that I honestly don’t know who is the best. I mean, who was the best pianist amongst Chick Corea, McCoy Tyner, Keith Jarrett and Herbie Hancock? Even Monk or Sarah were surrounded by greats of similar stature. So it’s an impossible question. In the case of a competition about emerging jazz artists, I only can speak to whom I would pay to see perform again. From this year’s Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, I would happily pay to see any of these five finalists perform live in the future. I’m sure that will happen sooner rather than later. Damn, it turns out that this event is really going to cost me.

For over 27 years, Lee Mergner served as an editor and publisher of JazzTimes until his resignation in January 2018. Thereafter, Mergner continued to regularly contribute features, profiles and interviews to the publication as a contributing editor for the next 4+ years. JazzTimes, which has won numerous ASCAP-Deems Taylor awards for music journalism, was founded in 1970 and was described by the All Music Guide, as “arguably the finest jazz magazine in the world.”