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Samara Joy: Samara Joy (Whirlwind)

A review of the 21-year-old vocalist's Sarah Vaughan- and Ella Fitzgerald-inspired debut

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Samara Joy: Samara Joy
The cover of Samara Joy by Samara Joy

Some artists attempt to obfuscate their influences, or pretend they exist in a vacuum. Not Samara Joy. The 21-year-old jazz singer freely admits she’s the product of a particular dyad: Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. “This music is my foundation for sure,” she told GRAMMY.com in 2021. “When I want to learn a song and learn how to tell a story, they’re who I go to for perspective.”

Sure, the Divine One and the First Lady clearly burble up in Joy’s approach. But on her self-titled debut album, several other masters of vocal jazz manifest too: Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Carmen McRae. While this style of music is a risky proposition in 2021—it’s a fine line between virtuosity and treacly cocktail-hour fare—Joy proves how much gas remains in the tank.

Samara Joy partly works because it’s so simple and straightforward: The album is Joy, the swinging rhythm section of Ari Roland and Kenny Washington, and some spry guitar work by Pasquale Grasso. If this configuration—a young upstart backed by pros—sounds overly familiar, give it a chance: Joy’s approach is so natural, confident, and easygoing that it’s impossible not to like her.

Is this music particularly innovative? Not really, but it doesn’t need to be; the fact that there have been no Samara Joys before her makes her genuinely new. These battle-tested standards, like “Stardust,” “Lover Man,” and “Everything Happens to Me,” are so richly performed that the listener will walk away smiling. Sometimes, just doing the music is all one needs to do.

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