REVIEW: Samara Joy – Samara Joy (2021)

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

Like Samara Joy? Give these a listen: Cécile McLorin Salvant, Luke Stewart, Nubya Garcia

TAKE VIBE: An Interview with Laurence Mason

Laurence Mason is the mastermind behind Take Vibe, a reworking of the Strangler’s Golden Brown (a post-punk meets baroque pop ode to heroin) in the style of Dave Brubeck’s Take 5 (written by saxophonist and composer Paul Desmond and first released in 1959 by Dave Brubeck Quartet). A demo and later de facto music video for the single reached viral status clocking in multi-million views and sparking interest in the opposing bands’ work within their counterpart’s audiences.

The original demo video, uploaded May 11th, 2020.

The following interview with Mason took place over email on April 21st, 2021.

The original demo was a hit, now with a little over 4 million views. Then the 7” is pressed and sells out. Did you know there would be such a strong audience out there for a Take Vibe type concept? What would you say is the make up of Take Vibe’s fanbase?

The only reason I thought people might click on it is because it’s the sort of thing I’d want to watch. That’s what an audience is really though isn’t it, a group of like-minded people who share a common interest with the creator. What I didn’t realize, and still struggle to comprehend, was how large that audience would be. The whole thing was very much a case of right place, right time – people seemed to be finding my video from lots of different places. There were visitors who had found it from searching for Dave Greenfield pretty early on, which of course was the initial reason I’d made it. Golden Brown had been used in an episode of a Netflix series called Umbrella Academy, and also in a film called Baby Teeth round about that time too. Then later on in the year it would have been Dave Brubeck’s 100th birthday so people were finding it through that.

In a roundabout manner of reaching out to you, I spoke with Jazz Room Records “Head Honcho” Paul Murphy. What was it like getting to work on the album? Could you run through the process of how the record was made?

The entire thing was done at my dining room table. I was moving house at the time of making it so I had limited equipment I could use, with most of it being packed away. This lo-fi setup was great because I wanted it to sound like it had been recorded 60 years ago, the idea of studio quality went out of the window and I was adding effects to make it sound grainy and old. For the release, the drums and bass were re-recorded so we weren’t using any samples as I had done on the original video, these were played by John Settle and Josh Cavanagh-Brierley. I ended up playing baritone sax for the B-side, “Walking On The Moon”. I’d been listening to Gerry Mulligan’s Night Lights album so it was a little nod to that. 

The jazz and post-punk connection has been made before, most notably with certain No Wave adjacent groups like Lounge Lizards, James Chance, and later with the lounge group Nouvelle Vague. Even then, I don’t believe there’s ever been a more direct connection between the two worlds, especially recently. Is this new terrain you’re hoping to explore further, or has the statement been made?

The connection I made was between the two songs (Take Five and Golden Brown) rather than looking at it from a perspective of connecting two genres. For a long time I’ve heard musical similarities between both tracks, and I’m not the first person to have done that, but the way I presented those similarities was the way I was hearing them. There’s definitely more terrain to explore in that field, but I’ve not yet found a pair of tunes that click together as well as those two did.

The idea of working with other people’s material, covering it, or of there being music ‘standards’ has really fallen out of popularity. How does a musical piece as a commercial entity transition into the greater cultural narrative, especially surpassing the original writer or performer?

Wow! Right, I’ll have a stab at that one… My thoughts are that it comes down to purpose versus right. Whether or not a statement (be it music, art, a campaign, etc.) has a right to exist in culture is entirely up to the individual who is on the receiving end of that statement, but its purpose to exist (and ultimately its success) is decided by society. The best example I can think of is Tracey Emin’s bed. On one side of the room you’ve got the people who say it really strikes a chord, the people who nominated it for a Turner prize, the people who actually bought it… Then on the other side you’ve got the people who say “Well that’s rubbish, I’ve got one just like that at home.” But its purpose in culture transcends what any individual thinks of it because society has decided that it has a place to exist in conversations, discussions, and arguments. So much so that on the mention of modern art, most people will bring up an image of an untidy bed in their minds. On the subject of using other people’s material for their creations, I think its use needs to be justified – what purpose does it serve in its new setting? Its right to be reused is up to the opinion of the consumer, but the decision of society on how well it has served its new purpose will govern its success in culture. That got deep.

Punk can in many ways be referred to as the great reset on music. With lower bars of entry, for both artists and consumers, how does jazz with a relatively high bar of entry stay relevant and keep forward momentum with younger audiences?

Look no further than YouTube for that – creators like Adam Neely, Aimee Nolte and Charles Cornell cater for young people wanting to learn about jazz, particularly jazz music theory, and it makes up an incredibly large audience on YouTube. Making something that previously seemed untouchable available to the masses is probably about as punk as it gets.

A little question I like to ask people I’ve just met, what are you listening to? No cool answers!

At the moment I’m listening to a lot of 90s RnB but that’s for a project I’m working on with someone. I’ve got Radio 6 on whenever I’m driving, I love Mary Anne Hobbs’ show.

Last but not least, ‘run what ya brung’ as they say where I’m from. Let the people know what you’re working on and where they can find you!

My next project involves a 100-year-old bass saxophone and some Leeds-based brass players. If that’s whet your appetite just type Laurence Mason into YouTube to find my channel, there’ll be some stuff up there soon about it.

You can find Laurence Mason’s Youtube account here or head on over to Jazz Room Records.

Wanting more strange jazz pastiche? Well you should check out Resident Sound’s Guide to The Fast Paced, Lighthearted World of DOOM JAZZ.

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