EDITOR’S NOTE: LET’S TRY THIS AGAIN. When my laptop was sent for emergency repairs last week, I lost access to my editorial calendar for this blog. For some reason, I assumed Samara Joy’s engagement at Bop Stop was December 10, and I rushed a post to preview the gig, never thinking that I could check Bop Stop’s site to confirm the date. The correct date, of course, is December 17, which gave me enough time to rewrite the preview to incorporate my conversation with Ms. Joy, and you can read it all below. Seriously folks, don’t miss this show. She’s extraordinary and you’ll be able to say you saw her when.
The walk to the stage at Cain Park for this year’s Tri-C JazzFest was longer than I expected, but I was still able to hear the opening act, albeit long before I could see the stage. The tricky changes of the verse of “Stardust” sailed out into the early autumn afternoon like a warm breeze, pitch-perfect and phrased with uncanny grace. Comparisons are invidious, but here was a singer with the vocal lushness of a young Sarah Vaughn and Ella Fitzgerald’s preternatural musicality, as delusional as that description might sound.
Once inside the auditorium with a program in hand, I learned that the singer was Samara Joy, a vocalist who was barely old enough to order a drink yet commanded the stage with charming self-assurance. How was this possible?
Samara Joy is back in Cleveland on Friday, December 17 for a performance at Bop Stop but don’t expect any easy answers about how she does it, which remains a marvel. Better to luxuriate in the sound of a vocalist who has mastered the art of jazz singing despite having had almost no exposure to the genre before she entered college.
The native of the Bronx didn’t exactly come out of nowhere. Members of her family were prominent on the Philadelphia music scene. “My dad is an amazing bass player and singer [and] my uncle plays drums and sings,” Joy told me by Zoom from her home in Washington Heights. “My grandfather, he had a choir called The Savettes of Philadelphia, and he and my grandmother sang lead. There’s a couple of recordings from the 60s where you hear them on multiple tracks. I just listened to everything that my mom and dad listened to, as far as singers go. Chaka Khan and Stevie Wonder both have incredible range–and Luther Vandross–and, I just tried to imitate them.”
Jazz was not on Joy’s radar until she entered SUNY Purchase and had a fateful encounter with Cleveland native Tadd Dameron’s recordings with the bebop trumpeter Fats Navarro and Sarah Vaughan singing “Lover Man.” She studied jazz intensively and eventually entered and won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019. She was 19 years old.
The following year, her senior year at Purchase, Joy entered the studio with Italian-born guitarist Pasquale Grasso and the veteran rhythm section of bassist Ari Roland and drummer Kenny Washington to record a program of Great American Songbook material. “Over the past three years of being in school, I learned what standards really stuck with me,” Joy said. “I just started gathering standards that I felt like I could authentically interpret.”
Some of the songs are iconic (“Lover Man,” “Moonglow” and “Stardust”) while others are less well known (“If You’d Stay The Way I Dream About You” and the delightful “If You Never Fall In Love With Me” with lyrics by Carmen McRae). All are given expert performances that sparkle with the delight of an artist finding her voice.
It’s a setlist that Joy will bring to Bop Stop on Friday, and the timing couldn’t be better. The holidays are a time when even tweens press pause on their playlists of Doja Cat and Olivia Rodrigo hits to wrap themselves in comforting old songs. Samara Joy will not disappoint.
Still, notwithstanding her astounding affinity for them, it’s hard to imagine a singer so prodigiously gifted singing these ancient songs forever. Surely there’s another voice, another level of artistry waiting to be explored.
“I like what I’m doing now,” Joy asserted, “and I feel like I’m growing, as far as singing and playing with great musicians and connecting with an audience. But I may hear a different sound, and want to explore that avenue, and also grow in that field and keep adding to my toolbox of things that will help me. I already have my own voice–we all do–but [I want to] gradually develop and mature in that.”
For now, though, Joy said, “I love singing. Singing makes me feel like I’m living in my purpose, like doing what I was born to do. There’s always something new to try from singing the same songs. Week after week, there’s always something new that I can put in there or explore. So, it’s just an endless well of creativity. That’s why I love singing.”
Samara Joy with guitarist Pasquale Grasso, bassist Ari Roland and drummer Keith Balla, will appear Friday, Nov. 17 at 7 p.m. at Bop Stop, 2920 Detroit Ave., Cleveland, OH. Tickets $20 are available here. All guests, staff, and performers must show proof of vaccination or produce a negative test result within 72 hours of entering to be admitted to a show. For FAQ’s regarding this policy please click here.