Album review

Samara Joy – ‘Samara Joy’

Samara Joy Samara Joy
(Whirlwind Recordings WR4776. Album review by Adam Sieff)

There have been plenty of good things written about the 21- year-old New Yorker Samara Joy since she won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019, and they’re richly deserved. Her vocal performances on saxophonist Ruben Fox’s recent album are among the highlights of this year so far. Now she releases her eponymous debut album, and as Ella would say, ’S Wonderful!

This looks like such a straightforward recipe for great music. A young singer with the level of talent that only surfaces once in a blue moon, supported by a trio led by a guitar player who’s close to nonpareil, performing 12 classic songs that have stood the test of time and guided by a producer with the expertise and experience to use the lightest of touches. 

Samara Joy has a wonderful voice. By her choice of repertoire she invites comparison with the great singers who have influenced her, particularly Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holliday, who she has also studied intently. But her respectful interpretation balances tradition with the freshness of youth and more contemporary influences, with the result that her voice has a timeless quality that’s pure jazz.

The fidelity of the album adds to that perception. Recorded over two days last October at Oktaven Audio by Ryan Streber and mixed and mastered by Christopher Allen, it gives the impression that it could have been made at any time in the last 60 years. This is a jazz record free from any pandering to traditional commercial or marketing considerations, there is no ‘sweetening’ that a major label would have probably demanded, and is all the better for it. Although producer Matt Pierson is A&R Consultant for Sony Masterworks, the album is released on an independent label, Michael Janisch’s Whirlwind Recordings, taking pressure off the artist and giving her space for her career to develop naturally. 

It’s pleasing to hear such well known standards as Stardust and Moonglow sound so fresh in Joy’s hands. Her delivery on Nat ‘King’ Cole’s The Trouble With Me Is You (the first single) is fun and playful, she sings moving versions of Lover Man and But Beautiful (recorded with just guitar) and swings through Everything Happens To Me and If You Never Fall In Love With Me. But all her performances here are special, she sounds so at home with this repertoire and her just under two minute take on Carmen McRae’s If You’d Stay The Way I Dream About You has great charm.

Although this is very much Joy’s album, the contributions of the musicians are immense and the exceptional new arrangements complement her extremely well. The brilliant young Italian born guitarist Pasquale Grasso (also produced by Pierson) leads a trio featuring double bassist Ari Roland and the vastly experienced drummer Kenny Washington sitting in for Grasso’s regular drummer Keith Balla. A guitarist who plays more in the style of a pianist, Grasso provides a tremendous supporting platform that must give Joy the confidence to perform at her best. He flashes between melody and chords while the rhythm section swing while keeping things tight. His speed is dizzying, the solo on the uptempo Let’s Dream In The Moonlight just takes off and the following trading fours section with Washington is perfectly executed with Roland’s bass holding things together. These musicians set an impossibly high standard for the classic guitar trio lineup.

This must be the most exciting jazz vocal album debut for some time. Samara Joy is spreading beauty, harmony and happiness and we really need her now. She will be performing with Pasquale Grasso’s Trio at Ronnie Scott’s on 8 November and it will surely be a night to remember. 

LINK: Samara Joy on Bandcamp

The Trouble With Me Is You

Feature/Interview by John Fordham

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