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Newcomer Samara Joy Makes An Imposing Debut On Her Self-Titled Album

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead likes the new debut album by singer Samara Joy. She sang a little jazz with the band at Fordham High School for the Arts in the Bronx but didn't get serious about it until she entered the jazz program at the State University of New York's nearby Purchase College. She was a quick study. In 2019, less than two years after discovering Sarah Vaughan, Samara Joy won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. Here's Kevin's review of her self-titled album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYTHING HAPPENS TO ME")

SAMARA JOY: (Singing) I never miss a thing. I've had the measles and the mumps. Every time I play an ace, my partner always trumps - guess I'm just a fool who never looks before she jumps. Everything happens to me. At first, I thought that you could break this jinx for me, that love could turn the trick to end despair. But now I just can't fool this head that thinks for me, mortgaged all my castles in the air. I have telegraphed and phoned, sent an air mail special, too. Your answer was goodbye, and there was even postage due. Fell in love just once, and then it had to be with you. Everything happens to me.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Listening to Samara Joy, I'm struck by the sound of her voice - warm, grounded and sturdy, an impression reinforced by her sure sense of pitch. But her understated, swingy rhythm can feel lighter than air. There's also the attention she pays a witty, poetic or heartfelt lyric without overselling it. She knows good words will carry their own weight. And with her clear diction, you can hear every one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STARDUST")

JOY: (Singing) Sometimes I wonder why I spend the lonely nights dreaming of a song. The melody haunts my reverie. And I am once again with you.

WHITEHEAD: Samara Joy on the evergreen "Stardust" from the album titled "Samara Joy." It's disarmingly old school with just guitarist Pasquale Grasso's trio to keep her company. The program mixes standards and deep tracks from the Carmen McRae, Nat Cole and Billie Holiday discographies. On 1938's "Let's Dream In The Moonlight," Samara Joy sounds unhurried, even at a brisk tempo with a double-time feel. Kenny Washington is on drums.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S DREAM IN THE MOONLIGHT")

JOY: (Singing) Let's dream in the moonlight. Tell me that you love me. Tell the stars above me what's in your heart. Let's dream in the moonlight. Say you're glad you found me. Put your arms around me before we part. Even though it's just pretending and the night will soon be through, I can say I'm only lending when I give my heart to you.

WHITEHEAD: Ari Roland on bass. Some jazz award-winners' first albums proclaim what else they do, show they aren't just into jazz. Samara Joy stays focused. She comes from a gospel music family and sang in the choir, but she doesn't employ obvious gospel markers.

The forgotten tunes here are worth reviving. And on the Jimmy Van Heusen-Johnny Burke standard "But Beautiful," she includes the too rarely heard opening verse, the introduction that eases you into a Broadway-style song, setting the scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUT BEAUTIFUL")

JOY: (Singing) Who can say what love is? Does it start in the mind or the heart? When I hear discussions on what love is, everybody speaks a different part. Love is funny, or it's sad. Love is quiet, or it's mad. It's a good thing, or it's bad - but beautiful.

WHITEHEAD: I confess I find Pasquale Grasso's virtuoso guitaring a bit fussy at times, though the contrast between his trio's jitters and the singer's calm is effective. Samara Joy recorded this disc while still in college in the fall of 2020, making it more than just an imposing debut. The album "Samara Joy" is a public service announcement for jazz education.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IF YOU NEVER FALL IN LOVE WITH ME")

JOY: (Singing) I want to stay here by your side and keep your arms forever occupied. Don't you see what a lost lady I'm liable to be if you never fell in love with me?

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead is the author of "Play The Way You Feel: The Essential Guide To Jazz Stories On Film." He reviewed Samara Joy's debut self-titled album.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "JOHN BOY")

GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR, we remember Neal Conan, who played a major role in the history of NPR as a reporter, London bureau chief, executive producer of All Things Considered and longtime host of Talk of the Nation. While covering the Gulf War in 1991, he was captured by the Iraqi Republican Guard and held hostage for a week. He died Tuesday of brain cancer. He was 71. We'll listen back to my interview with him. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Thea Chaloner directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

[POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: The previous audio version of this report incorrectly stated the name of the album as Whirlwind. The title is Samara Joy.]

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "JOHN BOY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: August 11, 2021 at 9:00 PM PDT
As reflected in the transcript, the previous audio version of this report incorrectly stated the name of the album as Whirlwind. The title is Samara Joy.