Exciting Jazz-Vocal Discovery Tawanda,
Winner of the 2021 Sarah Vaughan Competition,
Releases Much-Awaited Debut Album Smile on Resonance Records
Resonance Records, the acclaimed jazz label issues the first album by one of the most promising young jazz singers to emerge in years: Tawanda Suessbrich-Joaquim, known simply as Tawanda. The Los Angeles-based vocalist, 26, sings in a cloudless alto with a crystalline shimmer, effortless but unfussy jazz feeling, immaculate musicianship, and a maturity that few of her contemporaries possess.
In June of 2021, Tawanda tied for first place with Gabrielle Cavassa in the 9th Annual Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, held in Newark, New Jersey. (The competition was originally slated to be held in 2020 but delayed due to COVID. The winner of the 10th annual competition was also announced in 2021). Her performance — judged by a panel that included singers Carmen Lundy and Vanessa Rubin and bassist Christian McBride — was all the more impressive given that Tawanda had performed her first full show just a year before.
Smile was produced by Resonance founder and president George Klabin. Resonance is renowned both for its deluxe reissues of previously unreleased gems by Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery, John Coltrane, Stan Getz, and other greats; and for its new recordings by an impeccably chosen array of veterans and newcomers.
On Smile, Tawanda gives even the most time-honored standards a freshness that makes them sound new. She also finds the jazz in tunes recorded by Sting (“Sister Moon”), Donny Hathaway (“Sack Full of Dreams”), and Maureen McGovern (“Bring Back My Dreamer”). Lifting her even higher are the elegant piano-playing and arrangements of two members of the Resonance family, Tamir Hendelman and Josh Nelson, both of whom have brought out the best in many a singer.
Born in Las Cruces, New Mexico to a German-born mother and a father from Mozambique, Tawanda spent her school years honing her vocal gifts in school musicals and choirs. Jazz entered her life at eighteen when she enrolled in Santa Fe University of Art and Design; there, she began studying with Mirabai Daniels, a jazz singer whose husband, clarinetist Eddie Daniels, is another Resonance artist. Mirabai raved to George about Tawanda. After she’d graduated in 2019, the young woman moved to Southern California and met him. He was struck by her “natural ability to interpret the jazz-vocal idiom with any song she chose.” George began to mentor her and produced a few demos.
Once the time was right, he booked her into Campus JAX, a supper club in Newport Beach, California. Soon afterward, he submitted her for the Vaughan competition. The outcome made it overwhelmingly clear that Tawanda was ready for an album.
Together they chose a broad range of songs that show off what Tawanda can do. The predominant theme is optimism. With all the hardships and upheavals that the pandemic brought, it was important for her to boost people’s spirits, including her own. “I was at a really low moment,” she says. “To go into the studio and sing songs about joy and dreams and love was a big challenge, but at the same time, it inspired me to keep my head up. You can manifest through singing.”
The title song, about the smile that hides the tear, leads into “I’m All Smiles,” a buoyant jazz waltz that finds her dancing vocally on air. (Later, in a reprise of “Smile,” she draws upon her choral background by overdubbing her voice into airy four-part harmony.) Tawanda learned another message of hard-earned contentment, Eddie del Barrio’s “I’m Okay,” from one of her key inspirations, Dianne Reeves. “She’s graceful-strong,” says Tawanda. “I’m aspiring to that.”
The young singer finds her own way with several jazz chestnuts — “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “Out of This World,” “Lucky to Be Me” — while gliding over the tricky intervals and key changes in the arrangements. But Tawanda can also tell a heartrending story. Longing and desperation shine through her version of “Bring Back My Dreamer,” written by pianist and composer Jeff Harris, the longtime accompanist of Maureen McGovern, who recorded the song in 1998.
“Sack Full of Dreams” is a call for unity in a world that has seemingly forgotten what the word means. It was composed in the late ‘60s by the remarkable arranger Gary McFarland; Louis Savary, author of many books about spirituality, wrote the words. “It’s one of the songs I feel the world really needs,” says Tawanda. “How do we create a new vision of love and togetherness when people are so disconnected?”
Singing is her contribution. “I’m always happily surprised when friends come to my shows and say, ‘Wow, I didn’t even know about jazz, and this was beautiful.’” Smile completes the first chapter in the story of an artist whose work is easy to love.