Gig Review: Samara Joy at the Savoy Jazz Fest, Helsinki

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Samara Joy showed that the future of the tradition is strong in the hands of Gen Z.

Samara Joy’s show began on a surreal note: just before she hit the stage, news spread of Wayne Shorter’s passing. Saxophonist Seamus Blake, who played the following night at the Savoy Jazz Fest and once jammed with Shorter, was sitting nearby. He said he’d had a dream the night before about an angelic Shorter gently kissing small birds.

While at 23 Samara Joy performs much more traditional jazz than that celestial pioneer, she showed that the future of the tradition is strong in the hands of Gen Z.

The elegant 800-seat Savoy Theatre dates back to the 1930s, and so did some of her repertoire, like ‘If the Moon Turns Green’. Some went back even further, like ‘Stardust’ from 1927, which she recorded on her straightforward debut in 2021. Compared to breathtaking early live videos, Joy’s major-label debut from last autumn was too polished and meticulously retro-sounding for my taste – although it obviously struck a chord, topping the jazz charts and winning her two Grammy awards.

Happily, she and an entirely different band reinterpreted the songs from the hit Linger Awhile with a looser, more improvisational feel.

Without guitarist Pasquale Grasso, who played on both albums, the main instrumental soloist was pianist Luther Allison. He shone tastefully on a vocal version of the lesser-known Thelonious Monk tune ‘Worry Later (San Francisco Holiday)’ segueing into ‘Round Midnight’.

However Allison’s solos and those by bassist Michael Migliore and drummer Evan Sherman were mostly unsurprising, brief and discreet. They weren’t there to show off, but to support the star of the show. That said, Joy displayed no diva affectations, instead coming across a cheerful, down-to-earth girl-next-door from the Bronx, where she grew up in a gospel-loving family.

She started nearly a capella, just backed by Migliore’s bass, sounding slightly fragile at first – but that was just a feint, as her power soon kicked in along with the rest of the quartet. Soon she revealed the breathtaking versatility and range of her instrument, leaping effortlessly from a Shiraz-deep contralto to a bell-pure soprano.

While not a scat singer per se, Joy dazzled with long soaring vocalise segments and an uncanny ability to bend lines of lyrics like rubber without losing their meaning.

She also showcased her own perfect lyrics to Fats Navarro’s ‘Nostalgia’ from 1947, then said she aims to delve more into foreign-language material, singing in native-sounding Portuguese on Djavan’s ‘Flor de Lis’. She added the song’s English lyrics by Mario Biondi, teasing out the levels of meaning in the line “let me believe you are mine”.

Along the way she nodded to the greats, from a slight Billie Holiday crackle to the richness of Ella Fitzgerald and the witty athleticism of Betty Carter, who she honoured with ‘Tight’ and ‘Something Big’. Nancy Wilson is also close to her heart, as shown by her storytelling on ‘Guess Who I Saw Today’. Here Joy took a surprising twist, suddenly dropping an excerpt of another song about discovering infidelity: Stevie Wonder’s ‘Lately’.

The show was an ideal opening for the Savoy Jazz Fest, which began in 2019, and has quickly become one of the Helsinki region’s premiere festivals. This was the first year under the artistic direction of bassist Kaisa Mäensivu, who drew on her solid connections on the New York scene, where she has played for years. While We Jazz features more experimental artists and April Jazz tends to book artists who won Grammys decades ago, Savoy Jazz had the foresight last autumn to book a future Grammy winner.

Hopefully after the smash success of last year’s album and the coveted Best New Artist Grammy, Samara Joy will – like former winner and Shorter collaborator Esperanza Spalding – be given a free hand to create more distinctively original, forward-looking work.

Last modified: March 9, 2023