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Samara Joy at The Carver

Samara Joy at The Carver

Courtesy Gabriele Bifolchi

Samara Joy
The Carver Community Cultural Center
Jo Long Theatre
San Antonio, Texas
June 1, 2024

Samara Joy, 24, describes herself as a rookie despite her numerous awards, including three Grammys and the prestigious Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, not to mention her acclaimed recordings as a leader, all huge hits. "I'm still very much a student," she maintains, humbly.

The musicians in Joy's band are also young—not yet big names—but they, too, are serious students of the music on their way to solid careers. Tenor saxophonist Kendric McCallister is a fellow SUNY Purchase grad, as is trombonist Donavan Austin. Pianist Connor Rohrer and alto saxophonist David Mason both earned master's degrees from the University of Miami, and trumpeter Jason Charos is also a Miami graduate. Bassist Paul Sikivie went to Juilliard and played with Cecile McLorin Salvant. Drummer Evan Sherman grew up in New Jersey and was a childhood friend of Emmet Cohen, with whom he recorded alongside the great bassist Ron Carter. All have won awards and scholarships. Performing selections from her recordings—with band members contributing to the arrangements and compositions—Joy and her group demonstrated why they have been widely praised for the virtuosic youthful energy they bring to classic repertoire.

"I'm not doing anything new here," she is quick to point out about her approach. "If anything, I'm trying to capture the feeling of the people who created this music. I never imagined encountering the music in this way much less being able to perform it and do it with such amazing musicians and perform all over the world and sing all these beautiful songs.... Jazz music means feeling, it means swing, it means Blackness—Black culture—and it means being able to express yourself. And I'm grateful to be able to do that when I sing" (Pace Report, February 2022).

As her press materials declare, "Samara Joy makes her case to join the likes of Sarah, Ella, and Billie as the next mononymous jazz singing sensation." Welcoming her to the stage that evening, Cassandra Parker-Nowicki, Executive Director of The Carver Community Cultural Center, reminded those present that each of these great jazz women (Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Vaughan) had graced the stage of that venerable institution (more on The Carver is here: Terence Blanchard at The Carver Community Cultural Center). The crowd erupted. Joy, who had stopped in San Antonio as part of an ongoing 2024 tour, was clearly energized by the reverberation.

Since she graduated from SUNY Purchase in 2021 and released her self-titled debut (Samara Joy, Whirlwind Recordings, 2021), Joy has been touring and performing pretty much nonstop, pausing only occasionally to record an album (Linger Awhile, Verve Records, 2022; Linger Awhile Longer, Verve Records, 2023; A Joyful Holiday, Verve Records, 2023) or a single ("Warm in December"/"Someone Like You," 2022; "Tight"/ "Now and Then," 2023). Living on the road—performing, writing, rehearsing, hanging with the band—has no doubt contributed to the remarkable synchrony and close communication within the ensemble. As she has explained, "The main way I have explored and expanded my repertoire is through live performance, because I've been touring since I graduated" in 2021. "I learned a lot while I was in school but being on the road and being onstage nearly every single night, trying out different things..." (Released Live, March 2024).

"The audience is just as much a part of the performance as we are," she continued. "It's important to take people on a journey.... Like last night, I started a capella, and so the first thing that people hear—outside of when the band theme my walk-in music—the first thing that people hear is my voice. That's it, a capella. Everybody's quiet, you can hear a pin drop. And then we build up into the evening." That is precisely what transpired at The Carver. The band walked her on with "Ad Lib on Nippon" from Duke Ellington's "Far East Suite" (1967), then—all alone—she launched into Charles Mingus' "Reincarnation of a Lovebird," arranged by McCallister, a tour de force for the whole band, with trading and collective improvisation from the horns, breathtaking dynamics, spectacular vocal phrasing, a drum solo anchored in the final phrase and an ornate vocal cadenza with a powerful upper-register final note. (See YouTube, bottom of this page.)

She does not scat much, but Joy is a superb improviser with a solid vocal technique that easily accommodates the improvisational processes she brings into play. She has carefully studied the great vocal artists with whom she has been compared and, among other things, learned how to create a second chorus that takes things up a notch and/or in a new direction. Her repertoire includes chestnuts and tunes in a classic jazz style that are lesser known, like Barry Harris' "Now and Then," for which she wrote lyrics, and Ronnell Bright's "Sweet Pumpkin," which she recorded on Linger Awhile. In the studio and live, the melodies she improvises over the written lyric are harmonically satisfying and her readings are artfully dramatic. In her first chorus of "Sweet Pumpkin," the voice was soft and understated, but she kicked off the second chorus with a glissando-crescendo into the upper register, adding an exclamation point to the line "Do you know something? I'm in love with you!" and intensifying things further from there.

She uses melisma quite a bit in her texted improvisations, employing it in not only in blues tonality, but also in passages encompassing multiple chord changes at various tempos. On Nacio Herb Brown and Gus Kahn's "You Stepped Out of a Dream," an upbeat signature classic for her, she improvised melismatic improvisations on the lyric, soloed on neutral vowels and demonstrated her dexterity with scat backgrounds and a shout-chorus, functioning as part of the horn section. By contrast, performing Austin's arrangement of Billie Holiday and Mal Waldron's mournful "Left Alone," she began—on "ooh"—with an intro more in the operatic style of Kay Davis in Ellington's "Transblucency" (RCA Victor, 1946). Joy's first chorus, which became increasingly florid, was followed by a wordless improvisation that progressed into a full-throated cry before returning to an ornamented version of the lyric and melody.

In an interview, she was asked to reflect on this quote from "Testimonial," Rita Dove's poem (On the Bus with Rosa Parks, W. W. Norton, 1999): "Back when everything was still to come, luck leaked out everywhere. I gave my promise to the world and the world followed me here." Joy's response was assured, "My promise to the world is that I'll never stop growing. I want to be grateful for the successes and be grateful for all that's happening to me, but always be mindful of what I can do to help others through that. So, I'll never stop growing, I'll never stop listening, I'll never stop taking in all that's around me and the people who are making a difference in their respective fields and how we can work together to, you know, uplift each other" (Amplify, NPR, February 2023). She made good on that last part at The Carver, lifting the capacity audience up out of their seats for multiple vociferous standing ovations.

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