Jazz Album of the Week: Vocalist Samara Joy sings standards from the Great American Songbook with pinpoint perfection
In her self-titled debut album, Samara Joy approaches tunes immortalized by Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, and Carmen McRae with such maturity and erudition, you wouldn't guess that she never really studied, or performed any of their repertoire, until she enrolled in SUNY Purchase’s jazz program just four years ago.
In that sense, Joy’s self-titled debut album is a glowing endorsement of her undergraduate training, “…a public service announcement for jazz education,” as NPR’s Kevin Whitehead put it.
Of course, there are things Joy possesses that just can’t be taught. Joy’s voice is an instrument that is always, always in tune. At any tempo, on any set of tongue-twisting lyrics, not only is her diction always clean and precise, her pitch is the very picture of pinpoint perfection. She does justice to celebrated songwriters and lyricists alike.
But credit for Joy’s musical instincts and sensibility is also owing to her upbringing. Joy grew up surrounded by music; her parents immersed her in everything from Luther Vandross and Chaka Khan to George Duke and Stevie Wonder.
“She comes from a line of great singers—gospel and R&B-ish,” says Mike Boone, the Philly bassist and educator who recently recorded with Joy, whom he affectionately calls his “little cuz,” as part of the all-star cast featured on saxophonist Eric Wyatt’s latest, A Song of Hope. “Her dad plays great electric bass…but her grandfather is THE one.”
Joy’s paternal grandparents, Elder Goldwire and Ruth McLendon, led the Philadelphia-based gospel group The Savettes. No doubt that’s the music she grew up with, and no doubt she could have infused her debut with a much more discernible gospel flavor. But Joy wisely resists the temptation common on debut recordings to fire every arrow in her quiver. This one’s going to be here to stay; there’s no need for her to show us everything at once.
What she does show is absolute command over vocal jazz’s foundational material, the standards of the Great American Songbook. Fair or not, legitimacy as a jazz vocalist hinges on mastery of this material, and license to color outside the lines depends on whether you first add something of value to the canonical repertoire.
Consider this debut, then, sanction for Joy to venture as far afield as she’d like going forward. She’s shown me enough here for her next album to be a vocalese interpretation of Albert Ayler’s most esoteric compositions. Though for Joy’s sake—and, selfishly, for my own—I hope she’ll consider making this repertoire her home base, a place to which she’ll invariably return again and again.
The legends of the form she honors with these contemporary yet faithful arrangements would, no doubt, agree. Whether interpreting ballads or swinging in double-time, Joy has whatever the tune calls for.
On the opener, a warm, enveloping take on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Stardust,” she’s mournfully ethereal, the perfect messenger for Mitchell Parish’s sublime lyrics. In a medium tempo take on “Jim,” the tune recorded by Billie, Sarah, and Ella, we’re shown a beautiful working relationship between Joy and bassist Ari Roland, as Joy, though in her early twenties, really convinces you of her expertise in the kind of self-destructive love you just can’t quit. And on “Lover Man,” the tune that really hooked her on jazz, she’s yearning but confident, heavenly yet resolute.
Her accompaniment of Pasquale Grasso (guitar), Roland on bass, and Kenny Washington on drums is stellar. Grasso is, in several instances, otherworldly. See “Everything Happens to Me,” where, in between periods of comping for Joy as a piano player would, his curly-cued chromatic runs ascend and descend like ladders to and from the stars.
Or check out Van Heusen and Burke’s “But Beautiful,” the album’s closer, where Grasso’s sensitive accompaniment frames Joy’s voice like a veteran catcher working with a longtime battery mate. Then compare to the double-time dynamo “Let’s Dream in the Moonlight,” where Joy embodies the old John Wooden maxim about being quick but not hurrying while Grasso spreads his improvisational stardust before memorably trading fours with Washington.
Where I love her most, though, is on a slightly off-the-beaten-path tune associated with Carmen McRae. “If You Never Fall in Love with Me” is Joy putting her vast storehouse of talent to its highest possible use. Joy, like Veronica Swift, shows herself not just a vocalist but a well-rounded performer who really knows how to inhabit a role and tell a story through song.
Far from being inauthentic, that’s mastery at a level well beyond the average vocalist making her recorded debut. Whether she sticks with this repertoire or stretches out some more next time, Samara Joy will find an audience wherever she wants one.