An excellently recorded album, Samara Joy’s self-titled 2021 debut album brings mellow vitality in a way that only Jazz can. Joy’s vocals are dutifully in-line with the album’s study of vocalists Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, yet it’s this display of taste and artistic values shown through cultural touchstones which is more or less ‘the point’ of many records nowadays, within and outside of Jazz. This fixation with the past, in this case Vocal Jazz greats, has many a times become a trap of banality. But the musicianship of Pasquale Grasso (guitar), Ari Roland (double bass), Kenny Washington (drums), and Samara Joy create an incredibly playful and impassioned performance across the album’s curation of material.
In recent readings of both Byung-Chul Han’s The Disappearance of Ritual and Simon Reynold’s Retromania, I found both authors touching on ideas of ‘vertical time’ and French philosopher Roland Barthes’s musings of Japan as the ‘empire of signs’. In The Disappearance of Rituals, Han explores the imbalanced modes of play and work within the “genealogy of [rituals’] disappearance”, while Reynolds’s Retromania investigates the rise of retro-fetishism and the wane of modernist Western ideals of artistic innovation and displays of emotional urgency within art.
It had all just fallen in my lap, a book I had put off for years (Retromania) and one I bought on a whim (Rituals). Completing this coincidental trifecta was that Samara Joy had finally made its way to the top of my ‘to review’ folder; an album I had never heard before, so deeply entrenched in a musical tradition, igniting vague ideas of the ritual-esque nature of ‘standards’ within various music cultures and practices.
‘Work’, Han argues, is an increasingly dominant force in our modern times. “Because of the compulsion of work and production, we are losing the capacity to play. We only rarely make playful use of language; we only put it to work. It is obliged to communicate information or produce meaning. As a result, we have no access to forms of language that shine all by themselves. Language as a medium of information has no splendor. It does not seduce.”
As an album, Samara Joy is a playful experience. Its tonality, recording quality, and study of musical touchstones is symbol-rich. It is decidedly Jazz- recognizable, in a sense historical. There is no original compositions on the album, no overt dialogue espoused. But it is within this framework which play thrives, as there is nothing to be extracted, no ‘work’ to be done. The music is there to enchant the listener and then move on.
Highlights of the album include renditions of Stardust, (It’s Easy To See) The Trouble With Me Is You, and Let’s Dream In The Moonlight. Pasquale Grasso’s magnificent guitar playing blankets the audible spectrum with vast swaths of color, reinforced by Kenny Washington’s densely textural drumming. Ari Roland’s bass playing gleams with character, refusing to be resigned solely to functionality. As a whole, the record is greatly enjoyable, perhaps magical in the right ears.
Still reading Retromania at time of writing this review, I find myself investigating (and interrogating) my own values in regards to art and culture.
Is the value of artistic innovation outmoded? Too individualistic to allow for play? I don’t believe so. I would argue there is increasingly less individuality and originality within our atomized cultural climate of work. Mining the past (our own garbology) has been a function of production, an efficient way of ‘up-cycling’ material. This stands in contrast to both structured playfulness and innovation through emotional urgency. Only ‘additive innovation’ (as in innovation for the sake of creating innovation) has a cancerous snuff effect on art- cutting off an intrinsic function (this sense of ‘play’) with excess matter. For proof, simply look at the irrelevance of contemporary self-identified Avant-Garde artists. ‘Additive innovation’ is academic exhibitionism at its most flaccid, most soulless, and forgoes the playfulness of music which enchants and enthralls the listening audience.
In contrast, Samara Joy and company commit to playfulness within a musical standard, a ‘ritual’ of sorts. Going forward, I would love to see what this line-up of musicians could achieve if egged-on outside of the comfort zone of Jazz familiarity. The album is delightful, and worth the time for any fan of Vocal Jazz.
For fans of: Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae