Rising Star: Dani Assis

June 3, 2024

Vocalist Dani Assis’ bio points out that he was born into a musical family. That is an understatement. “When I was younger,” he said, “I didn’t know there was anything else to life other than music because both my parents were musicians. My mom, Adriana Quadros, is a wonderful singer, and my father, Nanny Assis, is a percussionist (and singer), so I remember being under 10, just crawling under the tables of New York bars — SOBs (Sounds of Brazil), the Zinc Bar, the Knickerbocker — all these great places where the music really happens. From an early age, there was nothing else I could do.”

The 23-year-old Assis is this year’s winner of the Blues Alley Jazz Society’s Ella Fitzgerald Jazz Vocal Competition. The theme of this year’s competition was “Ella Loves Cole”, so, in the last round of competition, Assis sang three Cole Porter tunes: “Easy to Love”, “What Is This Thing Called Love”, and “It’s De-Lovely”. The judges were the four members of the vocal group, New York Voices, and one of them, Kim Nazarian, told Jersey Jazz she was impressed by “the beautiful quality of his singing voice, his extensive range, and his exemplary improvisation skills. He comes from a musical family with Brazilian roots, so he has the dance in his blood.”

Assis’ parents moved from New Rochelle, NY, to New Canaan, CT, when he was around seven or eight, and he remembers, as a nine-year-old, singing on a local Connecticut TV news program, “an image of me singing with my dad at SOB’s. He would always bring me onstage, just for fun. Every time my parents would be cooking dinner, they would be playing some music. So, my really early mentors were my family.”
Growing up, Assis “did not like jazz. I sang classical music, and I sang Brazilian music, but I never got into heavy straight-ahead swing until my freshman year at Oberlin Conservatory in 2019.” He won a full scholarship to Oberlin, and studied there with vocalist La Tanya Hall, percussionist Jamey Haddad, and trombonist/arranger Jay Ashby.

Hall met Assis “when he was 15, and his father brought him to my house for a lesson. He was shy, deeply steeped in musical theater, but really wanting to explore jazz. I could hear the potential in his instrument. When he graduated from high school, I accepted him into my program at Oberlin where he grew by leaps and bounds as he became immersed in the language of jazz. It’s been a joy watching him develop his artistry, and I expect amazing things from him in the future.”

Haddad was not surprised by Assis’ award. “The fact that Dani Assis won this year’s Blues Alley Ella Fitzgerald competition,” he said, “is no mistake! Dani comes from a family of musicians who were devoted to his music education, and they provided Dani with as many contextual experiences with as many artists as they could engage him with since he was a child. I met Dani as a freshman at Oberlin. He participated in every manner of world music and jazz ensemble. His growth since his graduation last year has been a pleasure to watch!

Last August, Assis released a single, “My Own Embrace”, a contrafact (musical composition consisting of melody overlaid on a familiar harmonic structure) of Miles Davis’ “Blue in Green”. His first full album, entitled DaniEL, will be released August 25, on the one-year anniversary of the single. On “Blue in Green”, Assis is accompanied by his father on percussion, Ron Carter on bass, Pete Levin on drums, and Tolga Bilgin on trumpet. The album, he said, will include, “a lot of the masters of the music, truly living legends.” Some of the music will feature Brazilian composers — Antonio Carlos Jobim, of course, and Egberto Gismonge. “We played a song of his called ‘Loro’. It means forever. You can tell the rhythmic influence from Brazil; the harmonic influence from America; jazz from Black American music; and then, just the heart of the Brazilian melody, bouncy and rhythmic.”

This was the seventh Ella Fitzgerald Jazz Vocal Competition, and previous winners included two Jersey Jazz Rising Stars, Lucy Wijnands (June 2021) and April Varner (June 2023). Second place winner was Aviana Gedler of West Des Moines, Iowa. Third place winners were: Angelina Kolobukhova, Minsk, Belarus; Arvin Ma, Shanghai, China; and Tina Hashemi, Charlottesville, VA.

On May 29, Assis performed at Dizzy’s Club with his father, Carter, Bilgin, pianist Helio Alves, guitarist Chico Pinheiro, and drummer Edu Ribeiro. He also appeared with a quartet on May 23 at Arthur’s Tavern in Greenwich Village. Among those accompanying him were pianist Hyuna Park, bassist Michael O’Brien and drummer Noah Sherman.-SANFORD JOSEPHSON


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