South African jazz singer Vuyo Sotashe returns to Strathmore this week on December 14 and 15 to perform holiday standards with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis. Following the upward trend of his career, he first appeared with Michael Mwenso and the Shakes at Strathmore’s smaller club, AMP, and is now stepping out on its hallmark Music Center stage.
Asked whether he prefers large concert halls or more intimate spaces, like AMP and the New York clubs that have embraced his unique style, Sotashe is torn.
“That’s a tricky one,” he says. “I’ve always felt at home in smaller, more intimate venues where I feel I can look directly into my audience’s eyes and take them on the journey with me. It’s a greater challenge to achieve intimacy in those kinds of environments, yet very possible. I look forward to exploring more ways of ‘shrinking the room’ in my performances, as more opportunities to sing in places like Strathmore, and many others, arise.”
A few years ago, the singer couldn’t have even imagined himself here. He started as an intern with Jazz at Lincoln Center (JALC) while studying at William Paterson University on a Fulbright Scholarship. Then, he became a Music Library Assistant. His “break” came when two mentors dropped in on a regular brunch gig in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, inviting him to perform for a Billie Holiday Centennial celebration at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. He has since performed at the organization’s satellite club in Shanghai, China and on a JALC concert series in Mexico.
“It’s been a crazy journey,” he reflects. “JALC has cultivated a special kind of incubator for young jazz musicians in the New York City scene through their jam sessions, their education, and mentorship programs. This kind of mentorship isn’t a rarity in the city with its many pockets of jazz communities, yet JALC’s influence has a wider reach and elevates all these communities. The New York jazz scene is so vast and incandescent, but I am grateful and never take for granted the doors, relationships, and community I’ve been blessed with through JALC.”
Growing up in South Africa, Satashe was surrounded by music. He began singing in church and was exposed to jazz at an early age through his father’s collection of cassette tapes and records from South African jazz and pop artists like Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, and Letha Mbulu, as well as Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones. He became captivated by the genre after attending his first live jazz performance as a teenager—15 or 16 years old, he recalls—and enrolled in the South African College of Music at the University of Cape Town. The fact that he was admitted is “miraculous” he says.
His parents are both Xhosa, South African peoples traditionally from the Eastern Cape Province. The cultural influence on his sound has been immense.
“South Africa has a rich and vast music tradition. We have 11 official languages and so much culture, sounds, and stories in all of them. Having been raised in a Xhosa family… that honors our traditions, customs, and our language, my music and sound are definitely rooted in that,” Sotashe said. “I like to write in my language [isiXhosa], and all the traditional music I grew up hearing has definitely influenced my concept of rhythm, my love for vocal ensemble music, and storytelling.”
The repertoire that he’ll perform in the Music Center at Strathmore is notably different, but Sotashe hopes to bring his own flare to jazz arrangements of holiday classics.
“All the arrangements in the concert were done by members of the Orchestra, under the music direction of the amazing Victor Goines. One of my favorites is Marcus Printup’s arrangement of ‘What Child Is This.’ He added a beautiful vocal ensemble intro and outro, which is a poignant and beautiful nod to my love for choral/vocal ensemble music,” the singer said.
As for Sotashe’s holiday plans, he hopes to spend time with his “NYC family” and perhaps visit New Orleans for the first time. But, such is the life of a touring musician, “we’re gonna be back to work for the new year sooner after.”
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis plays Friday, December 14th at 8:00 pm and Saturday, December 15th at 8:00 pm at the Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. For more information and tickets, call (301) 581-5100 or go online.