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Born in the Bronx, Samara Joy didn't stray far from home to win best vocalist honors in the annual Essentially Ellington high school competition at Lincoln Center. You can get to that Versailles of Jazz overlooking Columbus Circle by taking any of four Bronx subway lines, including the A train. Nor was it much of a drive – if she didn't simply hop a bus – for Joy to go across the Hudson River to Newark and win the prestigious Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition in 2019 while still a collegian. Recently, she graduated from the jazz program at the State University of New York at Purchase, less than 35 miles from the Big Apple, where she was an Ella Fitzgerald Scholar. No, Joy hasn't needed to hit the road to pick up these auspicious accolades. But make no mistake, teamed up with an extraordinary bebop guitarist, Pasquale Grasso, young Joy is going far. The 7:00pm set last Saturday evening was sold out at Middle C Jazz, where Joy and Grasso's trio made their Charlotte debut, testifying to the already impressive momentum of Joy's career and the spiraling sophistication of the Queen City's jazz audience.
Hard to say where the crowd had caught the buzz. A year ago, both Joy and Grasso were featured in August issues of major magazines, the singer in Downbeat and the guitarist in a JazzTimes write-up. Both have toured recently and both have been listed in their respective "Rising Star" categories for the past two years in Downbeat's International Critics Polls, the more established Grasso rising to #3 in this year's rankings. Grasso's discography is also more extensive, but news of Joy's triumphs is hitting my inbox more frequently these days. Verve, one of the choicest pearls among jazz recording companies, has signed Joy and will be dropping her first CD (and vinyl) on her new label in mid-September, and she has recently climbed aboard the list of heavyweight headliners for Jazz Cruise 2023. Yes, Grasso will be in the same boat, not quite as high on the quirky marquee.
Although only two tracks from the new album, Linger Awhile, have been released, the full songlist – otherwise greyed out – can already be viewed at Apple Music, and you can hunt down one other new song in a YouTube concert. Maybe it was even more exciting and auspicious than the half dozen songs she sang from the new release, including the title track, were the five songs that have not appeared on either of her two albums to date, including new lyrics for tunes by Thelonious Monk, Fats Navarro, and a tryout for Joy's French translation of "April in Paris," mashed up with the original English by Yip Harburg for composer Vernon Duke. Nor was Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust," the lone tune Samara performed from her eponymous debut album of 2021, merely a lazy reprise. The YouTube concert recorded last July at Duck Creek, just after the release of Samara Joy, leans far more heavily toward Sarah Vaughan than the studio version, which shuttled between Sassy Sarah and Ella Fitzgerald in its timbre and interpretation. At Middle C, Joy was bolder, more self-assured, more venturesome, and more individual. Freed by Grasso's lacy and linear accompaniment to take liberties with the beat, Joy bent the melody – and the lyric – more audaciously, particularly in the final sentence, letting Hoagy's vain "dream" float longer than those previous versions and ending with a little cadenza that stretched out the final "refrain" to two or three long breaths.
Since Vaughan was the vocal great most closely associated with bebop, it was inevitable that Joy would gravitate toward melodies by Monk and bebop phrases coined by Charlie "Bird" Parker – especially since Grasso, in addition to his latest Be-Bop! album on the Sony label, has also released solo EPs devoted exclusively to Bird, Monk, and the wellspring of his unique guitar style, bebop pianist extraordinaire Bud Powell. Sprays of dazzling lucidity poured from Grasso's fingers whether he was setting the stage for Joy's vocals with oblique intros or soloing midway to give our featured artist a well-deserved breather. Not that this future diva ever took a seat or even a sip of water. She's just 24!
Jumping right into "Can't Get Out of This Mood," a somewhat neglected gem that Vaughan introduced in 1950 on her first LP, Joy's vocal kinship with Sassy was instantly apparent – but she was getting to the song a few years earlier in her career, so her voice had a lighter, more youthful sound. She sounded like a younger Vaughan from back in the '40s, when you could only hear her "Perdido" on 78rpm. That made a difference when Joy sang the payoff line, "Heartbreak, here I come!," almost embracing disaster. After giving her "April in Paris" a French twist, Joy played around a little bit with Cole Porter's "Just One of Those Things," starting at a ballad tempo with the bridge, which slightly veiled the song's identity before she hit the familiar opening line with an abrupt uptempo splash.
For me, the most delightful segment of the program came at the midpoint, when Joy concentrated on retrofitting some lost bop treasures with fresh lyrics. "Sweet Pumpkin," already gathering plays on the streaming sites as the B-side of Joy's first Verve single, has had two separate lives – as a Ronnell Bright song recorded by Bill Henderson in 1959 and as a Blue Mitchell instrumental in 1960. Joy's second chorus was so unlike her first that you could accuse her of a second melody in vocalese, a precipice from which Ari Roland's ensuing bass solo contrasted like a pleasant, peaceful valley. The young singer really did craft new lyrics for the next tune, Navarro's "Nostalgia," which will pick up a parenthetical new title, "The Day I Knew," when the new album releases. Most fun of all for me was the Monk tune that Joy may not have taken to the studio yet, her new setting for "San Francisco Holiday," nearly renamed "Don't Worry Now" – I say nearly because one cover of the tune I've found has "Worry Later" as its parenthetical title.
Joy sang her song so slowly that it was unrecognizable at first. Aside from Carmen McRae, the only diva I know who has dared to devote a whole album to Monk's marvelously eccentric music, nobody has ever sung such a prickly, astringent song so slowly. It is blaring, repetitive, brassy music that would lose most of its flavor on piano or guitar, cresting with a bridge that echoes the main theme maybe an octave higher – with more discordant harmony. Only when Joy sped up the melody on her second pass did I recognize the Frisco melody and the wan, soused gleefulness of the original 1960 recordings by Monk's quintet. Prudently, Grasso took a pass on soloing here, ceding that honor to drummer Keith Balla, who fashioned a fine and witty tribute to Monk's legendary eccentricity, playing three-quarters of his solo quietly with his bare hands and his finale with a pair of sticks held no further than three inches above his drum kit.
There was no letdown after this delight. Joy will be building to the climax of the Linger Awhile CD with the title song followed by the pinnacle of Monk's composing genius, "'Round Midnight" – a fairly objective judgment if our measuring stick is either the number of cover versions the work has drawn by other jazz greats or the number of plays the pianist's own versions have tallied on Spotify. If Joy's recording is like the Charlotte performance, you will not be disappointed. The live version had all the trimmings and more, with Joy singing the verse, the vocal, and what seemed to be an even longer version of the familiar out-chorus vamp than even McRae's, with little melodic variants all Joy's own. Separating the two vocals, Pasquale played his most soulful solo in the set. Arriving as a signature song for her upcoming album, "Linger Awhile," was capped by a gleeful trading of fours by the instrumental trio, another pleasant and cordial valley after another majestic peak.
For the Middle C audience, the most delight was probably delivered with Duke Ellington's "Just Squeeze Me." Not only did Joy wail it with two pairs of soaring choruses, she challenged the crowd to repeat a series of scatted riffs, breaking the room into two competing teams, and choosing sides. Just a bunch of fun, underscoring how relaxed and self-confident Joy had been throughout her sellout set. The encore was a nicely chosen mellowing agent from the forthcoming album, "Guess Who I Saw Today," a special bouquet for Nancy Wilson fans. There seemed to be many of them in the house.