Vo­cal­ist is high­light of jazz con­cert

South African singer to per­form hol­i­day tunes at Sym­phony Hall.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution - - LIVING - By Jon Ross

As a grad­u­ate stu­dent in New York City, South African vo­cal­ist Vuyo So­tashe jug­gled his mu­sic stud­ies and an in­tern­ship at Jazz at Lin­coln Cen­ter with a steady stream of gigs and jam ses­sions. On Sun­days, this meant per­form­ing at Stan­ton So­cial on the Lower East Side for brunch­ing Man­hat­tan­ites. One day, his co-work­ers found out.

Ge­orgina Ja­vor, JALC’s as­sis­tant direc­tor of pro­gram­ming, saw So­tashe as a quiet in­tern who never talked about his mu­sic. She fig­ured at­tend­ing the brunch would be noth­ing more than sup­port­ing a friend, but she can still re­mem­ber his orig­i­nal ar­range­ment of “Black­bird,” a tune she hasn’t heard him sing since.

“We were all kind of shocked,” she said. “Not that we didn’t know … but we didn’t re­ally know.” JALC quickly placed So­tashe on a pro­gram that spring cel­e­brat­ing Bil­lie Hol­i­day’s cen­ten­nial.

So­tashe will per­form Mon­day at Sym­phony Hall with vo­cal-

ist Veron­ica Swift as part of the Jazz at Lin­coln Cen­ter Or­ches­tra’s hol­i­day con­cert. The hol­i­day tour is some­thing of an an­nual tra­di­tion for the big band. This year, the en­sem­ble brings new ar­range­ments of hol­i­day tunes to At­lanta.

Though So­tashe, 28, has per­formed at JALC events reg­u­larly since that first show in 2015, this is his first time singing with the lauded 15-piece or­ches­tra, which is helmed by trum­peter Wyn­ton Marsalis and fea­tures Ge­or­gia na­tives Chris Cren­shaw and Mar­cus Printup.

“Be­ing con­nected to Jazz at Lin­coln Cen­ter re­ally helps. It did a lot for me as a young artist in the city, as it has done for so many other peo­ple,” he said. But even with that as­so­ci­a­tion, mak­ing his path in the jazz world has taken a lot of hard work. “The cor­ner­stones of what has built the jazz com­mu­nity in New York still re­main — show up, be kind and be ex­cel­lent at what you do, and take on as many op­por­tu­ni­ties as you can.”

So­tashe has a bright tenor that can eas­ily spring from sonorous depths to the full­bod­ied top of his im­pres­sive range. He grounds his per­for­mances — whether singing love songs from “Porgy and Bess” or orig­i­nals steeped in South African folk tra­di­tion — with an unerring rhyth­mic pulse.

So­tashe grew up in a small vil­lage in the East Cape of South Africa lis­ten­ing to his mother sing Xhosa folk songs. Singing in church and in school choirs was part of daily life, but it wasn’t seen as the foun­da­tion of a ca­reer. Jazz didn’t ex­ist for So­tashe until an older brother re­turned from board­ing school with tapes of Ella Fitzger­ald and Os­car Peter­son, along with a key­board, and asked So­tashe to in­ter­pret the songs while he fig­ured out the piano ac­com­pa­ni­ment. So­tashe had yet to learn English.

At 15, he saw his first live jazz per­for­mances in Cape Town and was im­me­di­ately smit­ten with the mu­sic. With jazz in the back of his mind, So­tashe be­gan study­ing busi­ness, even­tu­ally switch­ing his fo­cus at the Univer­sity of Cape Town to ded­i­cate him­self to learn­ing a new mu­si­cal lan­guage.

“I had not had any for­mal train­ing be­fore that, so I had to do a lot of study­ing months be­fore the en­trance test and au­di­tion,” So­tashe said. “It was dif­fi­cult in the be­gin­ning be­cause I could do less than half of what most of the stu­dents did.”

Af­ter grad­u­a­tion, So­tashe moved to the New York City area in 2013 on a Ful­bright schol­ar­ship and be­gan en­ter­ing jazz competitions as he pur­sued his master’s de­gree. He placed first in the vo­cal com­pe­ti­tion at the 2014 Mid-At­lantic Jazz Fes­ti­val in Mary­land. In 2015, So­tashe fin­ished third in the Th­elo­nious Monk Com­pe­ti­tion, a yearly con­test that has helped many of to­day’s ma­jor jazz stars find the lime­light.

Leonard Brown, direc­tor of spe­cial projects at the Th­elo­nious Monk In­sti­tute of Jazz, sees the event as more of a show­case than a con­test; artists don’t have to come in first in the com­pe­ti­tion to ben­e­fit from the ex­po­sure. He re­mem­bers So­tashe as a vo­cal­ist with an ap­proach to singing that in­cor­po­rated myr­iad in­flu­ences.

“Whether he would have made it to the fi­nals or not, every­body took no­tice,” Brown said.

Af­ter five years of per­form­ing in the city, So­tashe has amassed a sig­nif­i­cant re­sume. He’s been on a num­ber of records as a fea­tured vo­cal­ist, and he re­cently ended a run per­form­ing in The Pub­lic The­ater’s “Black Light” show. And there’s more the­ater in his fu­ture. So­tashe has se­cured a com­mis­sion from The Pub­lic to cre­ate an orig­i­nal work, and he will per­form at the Kennedy Cen­ter in Washington, D.C., this Jan­uary in Kaneza Schaal’s “Car­tog­ra­phy,” a play about im­mi­gra­tion. In the midst of all that, he’ll record a debut al­bum.

“Right now, I think it’s the right time to record an al­bum of my own from the work that I’ve ac­cu­mu­lated and some of the songs I’ve been writ­ing over the years,” he said. “I just want it to be a marker in this process of growth, and that will in­clude all of the things that I carry with me.”

His debut record will cer­tainly mix the sounds of his up­bring­ing with his life in New York, and Ja­vor thinks this is ex­actly what makes him a fresh voice in to­day’s jazz land­scape.

“The way he con­nects with au­di­ences on an emo­tional level,” she said, “is some­thing very rare and some­thing I haven’t seen that much in my time as a pre­sen­ter.”


Vuyo So­tashe and Veron­ica Swift will sing with the Jazz at Lin­coln Cen­ter Or­ches­tra dur­ing Mon­day’s hol­i­day con­cert at At­lanta Sym­phony Hall.


The Jazz at Lin­coln Cen­ter Or­ches­tra will per­form hol­i­day clas­sics Mon­day at At­lanta Sym­phony Hall.

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