Samara Joy: Samara Joy

Bronx singer keeps her GAS message clear by avoiding lush arrangement and setting herself over a disciplined and creative guitar trio


Bronx native Samara Joy’s self-released debut album joins many collections which attempt to put a new interpretation on Tin Pan Alley’s Great American Songbook. The song selection cuts across many eras, featuring works by Hoagy Carmichael, Tom Adair, Billy Rose and Jimmy Van Heusen which have been covered by Carmen McRae, Nat King Cole, Billy Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Frankie Lane, Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan and others. Indeed, it was Joy’s deserving victory in 2019’s Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition which first grabbed headlines, and she’s also been busy on the New York jazz scene.

Such Songbook collections often utilise lush arrangements using strings and horns, but Joy has gone her own way, taking a stripped-down trio approach with support from jazz guitar virtuoso Pasquale Grasso, double bass player Ari Roland and Kenny Washington on drums.

The album opens with Carmichael and Mitchell Parish’s 1927 classic Stardust, Grasso’s playful guitar setting a bright tone for Joy’s relaxed but authoritative vocal. Drawn from a very different period, Adair and Matt Denis’s Everything Happens To Me, first recorded by the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with Frank Sinatra in 1940, sees Grasso’s guitar soaring with a series of upbeat runs before deferring to a scratchy bass solo from Roland, as the vocalist’s pitch runs the gamut from high to low.

Popularised by Holiday, Let’s Dream In The Moonlight from the 1939 movie St Louis Blues was written for Dorothy Lamour by director Raoul Walsh and Matty Malneck; Joy’s take is galaxies away from that, a fussy drum intro from Washington leading into a brief but solid vocal, with some upbeat musical fencing from Grasso and Roland taking the limelight before handing back to the singer. It Only Happens Once, composed by Laine for Cole, offers a lazy ballad tempo, allowing space for Joy’s sonorous vocal, while Moonglow, first recorded by violin player Joe Venuti in 1933, is the top cut here, Washington’s random cymbal clashes and Roland’s loping bass rhythm lifting the tune and cueing more busy fretwork from Grasso before Joy injects some impromptu scat work.

One of the album’s appealing aspects – cool vocals and virtuoso playing aside – is that, while many Great American Songbook compilations opt for luxurious mainstream middle-of-the-road arrangements, the juxtaposition of Joy’s multi-octave voice with the simplicity of Grasso’s professional combo and the discerning choice of songs make this a proper jazz record. Yes, the tunes and melodies are already here, but the undeniably jazzy vocal delivery is perfectly matched with some excellent disciplined improv. An impressive debut.

Stardust; Everything Happens To Me; If You Never Fall In Love With Me; Let’s Dream In The Moonlight; It Only Happens Once; Jim; (It’s Easy To See) The Trouble With Me Is You; If You’d Stay The Way I Dream About You; Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be?); Only A Moment Ago; Moonglow; But Beautiful (47.07)
Joy (v); Pasquale Grasso (g); Ari Roland (b); Kenny Washington (d). New York, 20-21 October 2020.
Whirlwind Recordings WR4776