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Samara Joy: Ascension Into Jazz

Samara Joy: Ascension Into Jazz
R.J. DeLuke BY

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I love listening to the music. I love singing the songs.
—Samara Joy
When Samara Joy performs, she takes her place, stands confidently and sings. Immediately the strength and richness of her voice—which is natural—grabs the attention of the listener. There are no gyrations. It's refreshing that a young artist doesn't see the need for unnecessary vocal gymnastics. Too often, those can miss the mark.

Her style has a certain clarity and directness of emotion. She's only 21 and graduated just this May from SUNY Purchase, a state college north of New York City and her native Brooklyn. She has a degree in jazz studies. But before attending college, she had little performing experience and not much knowledge of her chosen genre: jazz. It makes her accomplishment all the more remarkable.

She won the prestigious Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019, which will earn her a spot on stage at the Newport Jazz Festival in August. Another example of her artistry at such a young age is a video she made after being named an Ella Fitzgerald Scholar at her school, which earned her a tuition-free scholarship from the Ella Fitzgerald Foundation. To thank the foundation, Pete Malinverni, head of jazz studies, asked her to record a Fitzgerald song with him. The two filmed their parts separately and the performances were combined on a video that went viral. The "Take Love Easy" video attracted an immense audience.

Buoyed by that unexpected reaction, she launched a GoFundMe campaign to finance her first album Samara Joy that comes out in July via Whirlwind Recordings.

She is humble and unassuming about her accomplishments and admits that as a young girl, "I was actually a quiet kid. My mom was kind of nervous about me, because all I would do is just stare people down. Turns out I was waiting for something to say."

"I couldn't even believe it," she says of the reaction to her video. "Millions of people viewed it and cheered and everything. And from there, Matt Pierson (producer) reached out to me and was like, 'Hey, you know there seems to be sort of a demand to hear from you.' I don't have any music, nothing on Spotify or anything like that. So once we raised the money in a matter of days, that began the whole process ... I guess it turned out all right."

She says she inadvertently benefited, in a sense, from the pandemic, which delayed her Newport appearance, and some others, by a year. "Being delayed on those gigs was a good thing. Because I have something to present now" at her appearances. She will do more performances as venues start to have live music this year.

Sarah Vaughan is a prime influence for the young singer, as is Fitzgerald. That can be clearly heard on her debut recording. Her voice is deep and full of expression, nuanced where necessary. It is a presentation of standards including "Stardust," "Everything Happens to Me," "Lover Man," "Jim," and "But Beautiful." She's accompanied by a trio consisting of guitarist Pasquale Grasso, bassist Ari Roland and renowned drummer Kenny Washington. Grasso and Washington teach at SUNY Purchase. She digs in for some sweet swing on renditions of "Everything Happens to Me" and "The Trouble With Me is You" where her timing is great. Her phrasing gets a lot out of the lyric. She handles the tricking melody and harmony of "Jim" beautifully—a highlight—and squeezes the right emotion out of ballads like "But Beautiful."

It was recorded at the end of October of 2020. She knew Washington from being a student in his jazz history class. Grasso and Roland she met at the nightclub Mezzrow in New York, "so I was really grateful to be sort of familiar with all of them prior to doing this. Because I had a couple people in my ear saying you should go higher, you know. Play with Kenny Barron or something. And I would obviously love to, but I definitely didn't have the budget at the time. But I'm really grateful to play with people that I know and am comfortable with at first."

Samara selected the songs with Pierson. "All of those songs are songs that I've listened to or heard from a friend and you know, learned from listening to a record or something like that. So all of those songs are really very special to me," she says. "We only had three rehearsals. So it was sort of like putting together the arrangements kind of on the spot. By the time we got into the studio, it was simple, but still, you know, clean."

While she's relatively new to jazz, the soulfulness in her voice can be traced to her family of musicians. Her grandmother played organ and sang and her grandfather sings as well. They both were founders of a choir in Philadelphia called the Savettes. "They're not the leaders anymore, but still active to this day. And it just kind of trickles down from there. So their kids—my father is a bassist and sings, my aunts sing and play piano. Everybody sings."

Around the house, she listened to a lot of music written by her song-writing father, as well as gospel music. There was some pop music, "Whatever was on the radio on the way home. But it's funny. Throughout high school, my uncle gave me this iPod, one of those really old ones, and it had all of music he liked on there, like the Yellowjackets and George Duke. I think Russell Malone might have been on there. Chick Corea. I would just press shuffle on my way. When I started taking the bus by myself, I would press shuffle on the way home and just listen to everything that came up. ... Not too much popular music. I just listened to what my my family listened to."

Samara's first exposure to jazz was while attending Fordham High School for the Arts, where she performed with the jazz band and won Best Vocalist at the Essential Ellington competition put on by Jazz at Lincoln Center's Jazz Academy, a program for high school bands.

"My last two years of high school, I joined the after-school jazz band. We would perform whenever there was a big production at school. There was vocal, there was acting, there was dance. So the instrumental section, I would kind of sit in with the band. I was just singing with the jazz band, very casually, occasionally."

When it was time to choose a college, she didn't know if she wanted to pursue music. Could she develop a career that she could sustain and support herself? She decided to give it a try and did an audition at Purchase.

"I didn't really start performing until college," she says. "It is a jazz program for sure. When I came in, even for my audition, I didn't know what a chart was, a lead sheet or anything like that. I just came in. I know this one Duke Ellington thing, "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart." So I did that." The response was good and she was accepted. Four years later she has a degree and an ascending career.

The Sarah Vaughan competition was November of 2019. "The Sunday before Thanksgiving, I remember. I was really, really grateful and really surprised. Being around all those amazing singers is really an honor."

There were three rounds in the competition. She sang "Perdido" and "Sophisticated Lady." For the last song, she performed a ballad called "Autumn Nocturne." First prize in the competition named after her idol was hers.

In addition to Vaughan, she lists Laila Hathaway and Stevie Wonder as singers she has paid close attention to, along with the Clark Sisters gospel group.

"When I first got to school, trying to learn these standards, I would first listen to Ella for the melody, and then listen to Sarah. We had to sing them in class. So I would listen to Sarah for the different kind of inflections and stuff so that I could show off a little bit—sing it differently or try something different. But more recently, I've been getting into Carmen McRae. I guess I didn't relate to her at first. But listening to her now, I'm like, 'Man, what was I missing?' And Etta Jones. Wow. Really amazing."

As she looks at her budding career, she says "I really knew nothing about (jazz) before coming to school. So I didn't know that it's kind of relatively new compared to other forms music, I guess I could say. I love the history. I love the fact that Sarah Vaughan exists. Even though I'm trying to learn, sort of, how to imitate her and everything, there's always something new to learn, always some record that you've never heard ... and you always know when you see names, when you see Philly Joe Jones on a record, you see Bud Powell, you know it's gonna be excellent. I love listening to the music. I love singing the songs and trying out different things and hearing something and being like, 'Oh, let me try that out.' Trying a different arrangement. I love everything about it.

"I'm grateful to have a team now. So they're putting together dates, sort of tentatively, to see what is open and what's not. I know for sure that I'm going to be at Umbria (in Italy) for the first time this summer, as well as coming back to to reclaim the Newport date, since it was canceled. So yeah, I'm really excited. Umbria is with the Emmet Cohen trio on the first day, which is also the album release, which is kind of cool.

She says there is already some talk about concepts for a second album. Future plans also involve "hopefully playing with as many people as possible, established musicians. Whether it be Emmett, who I love playing with. Bill Charlap. As many experienced people as I can so I can learn as much as I can."

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