Crate Digging: Vanguard Vocalists

Remember record stores? Remember the thrill of turning your friends on to new music by swapping vinyl and CDs? Yeah, we do too. That’s why we’re rebooting that tradition for the digital age with our “Crate Digging” video series, in which we’ll search through crates of our memories to bring you a handful of album recommendations on a given theme. It’s social media in the truest sense of the term: no algorithms, no computer-generated playlist. Just jazz fans sharing records with other jazz fans.

You can listen to the podcast version via the player below. Write-ups of individual albums and sample tracks follow. Welcome to the party! This week, we talk about some of our favorite young vocalists of this generation and ones to be on the lookout for in the near future. These are our vanguard vocalists.


Zara McFarlane, Arise (Brownswood, 2017)

Arise was the third album by British singer/songwriter Zara McFarlane. It further established her reputation as an artist definitely willing to explore new avenues in modern jazz. In this record, you’ll find plenty of influences ranging from soul, reggae, roots and beyond. And the tracks have a lot to offer lyrically as well as musically, alternating social engagement with personal themes. It’s no wonder she is often compared with such artists as Nina Simone and Cassandra Wilson. – Matt Micucci


Veronica Swift, This Bitter Earth (Mack Avenue, 2021)

Veronica Swift is an amazing young vocalist and her new album, This Bitter Earth, is forthcoming on Mack Avenue Records. She has a style that harks back to the old days with reverence for the past and the classics but with enough ingenuity and forward-thinking to show that she has her gaze fixed squarely on the future. She reminds me a ton of Ella Fitzgerald. Not only the tone and the interpretation of the lyrics but just in her musicality and her beautiful, internalized sense of swing. – Brian Zimmerman


Silvana Estrada, Lo Sagrado (self-released, 2017)

I came across this one fortuitously a while back and I’m happy to share it here. Lo Sagrado is the impressive album debut by Mexican singer/songwriter Silvana Estrada. It’s hard to describe the music, a sophisticated fusion of Mexican and Spanish music traditions seen through a jazz lens, crafted with guitarist Charlie Hunter. Estrada was only 19 when she recorded this album but you wouldn’t guess it listening to it. And even if you don’t know Spanish, you’ll be moved by the communicative power and passion of her voice. – Matt Micucci


The Brianna Thomas Band, Everybody Knows (Breathline, 2020)

If you like a little soul with your jazz – maybe with a little side of funk – then I’ve certainly got the vocalist for you: Brianna Thomas. She is not only a great singer of the traditional jazz vein but also delves very much into that soul, funk and R&B side. For her album, Everybody Knows, which came out in 2020, she took a number of jazz standards and really added a soul twist, putting her own unique spin on them. But the thing that really holds them together is just this clear, rich, pure commanding voice that just folds itself so well over a beautiful melody. – Brian Zimmerman


Jazzmeia Horn, A Social Call (Prestige, 2017)

Jazzmeia Horn’s debut album, A Social Call immediately established her as a force to be reckoned with. It is also one of the most formidable vocal jazz albums of the past decade, particularly suited for fans of the acoustic jazz tradition, which both the vocalist and her band revel in here on this exciting program of standards and classics. All of which are, of course, inhabited and performed by Horn in her own personal and unique, versatile way, with an assured maturity and confidence. There are lots of highlights but I have a particular soft spot for the title track – a complex, fun vocalist number where bassist Ben Williams also shines. – Matt Micucci


Vuyo Sotashe on Fima Chupakhin, Water (self-released, 2019)

This vocalist has yet to drop an album but is definitely one to be on the lookout for and if you’re paying attention to the New York jazz scene, you’ve probably heard of him. Vuyo Sotashe is currently based in Harlem but originally from South Africa. He has a crystal clear voice, kind of in that high-tenor range. He has a wonderful way with melody and does some really innovative stuff when it comes to wordless vocals. What he did on Fima Chupakhin’s Water kind of reminded me of the work Richard Bona did with the Pat Metheny Group. That kind of voice that is almost a woodwind. Instrumental. One of my favorite sounds in jazz. – Brian Zimmerman


Cécile McLorin Salvant, Dreams and Daggers (Mack Avenue, 2017)

Cécile McLorin Salvant is another leading vocalist of this generation, absolutely captivating both in the studio and on the stage. Her Dreams and Daggers magnum opus from 2017 is a double album that not only wonderfully showcases her talents but also takes the listeners on a journey, traversing the history of jazz from the early days of recorded music to modern times. And the idea you get from listening to this wealth of in-studio and live performances, originals and covers, is that she would have fit well into just about any era imaginable. – Matt Micucci


Michael Mayo, “You and You”

Michael Mayo may not have an album yet, though he has released a few singles, but you can expect a major label debut soon. This guy is just an incredible vocalist and a super-creative musician. I saw him perform “Giant Steps” complete with John Coltrane solo with just a loop pedal live at the Litchfield Jazz Festival. It was absolutely amazing. And that’s what I really admire about him – not just his incredible voice but the creativity he brings to jazz vocals. Reminds me of Bobby McFerrin, who really introduced entirely new ways to think about the voice and what it can do as an instrument. – Brian Zimmerman


Kandace Springs, The Women Who Raised Me (Blue Note, 2020)

Aside from being an awesome vocalist, Kandace Springs is a great songwriter in her own right. The Women Who Raised Me was a project where she paid tribute to some of the women in music who have inspired her in her art and in her life. My controversial statement here is that I personally don’t like some of the songs on the program. Yet, the fact that I can totally dig the way she transforms them here, allowing me to see some of the magic that she sees in them, shows just what a terrific interpreter she is. Not to mention, the record is enriched by some great special guests, including Chris Potter, Norah Jones and Christian McBride, to name but a few. – Matt Micucci


Samara Joy, “Stardust”

Samara Joy was the winner of the 2019 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. That’s kind of how she came onto my radar. Every once in a while, you encounter a voice that just hypnotizes you and stops you in your tracks. Samara is only 20-some-odd-years-old but this voice is so mature, so sophisticated, so pure, so laden with jazz vocal history. It’s just astounding. She’s also a beautiful interpreter. You listen to her voice and it just pulls you in. It’s like a warm flame. You can’t help but lend an ear and hear what she has to say. – Brian Zimmerman


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