A joyful evening: Samara Joy wows the Barbican at EFG London Jazz Festival

Kevin Whitlock
Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The US singer Samara Joy and her brilliant backing trio earn a standing ovation at a memorable concert at London's Barbican Centre

Samara Joy at The Barbican
Samara Joy at The Barbican

Photo: Mark Allan

If the applause that greeted the onstage arrival of American singer Samara Joy and her superb backing group – Luther Allison on piano, Mikey Migliore on bass and Evan Sherman on drums – at London’s Barbican Centre on Sunday (19 November) night was raucous, that was nothing compared with the standing ovation she received as she left the stage. This was a night that will linger long in the memories of all those lucky enough to be there.

Opening with a cover of Charles Mingus’ ‘Reincarnation of A Lovebird’ she exhibited supreme poise and confidence, singing a capella before band came in. It was breath-taking, but it was just the start. Joy has the kind of voice that comes along but once in a generation, if that – gorgeous, rich and honeyed, with perfect diction, a perfect combination of sensuality and power. She has been called an heir to Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan, but as well as her virtuosic dazzle and the sometimes operatic splendour of her voice, she is also a thoughtful, intelligent singer.

For someone who has just turned 24, the New Yorker's knowledge and understanding of jazz and the Great American Songbook is quite remarkable, as is her stagecraft – she performs with a maturity way beyond her tender years, and adds freshness to familiar material, balancing respect for the past with an eye to both the future and self-expression. She has already transcended her illustrious forebears' influence and is very much her own woman. And she’s pure jazz, supported by three remarkable musicians – Allison in particular was outstanding – perfectly in sync with her vision.

Following her opening salvo with Antônio Carlos Jobim’s ‘No More Blues’ (partly sung beautifully in Portugese), she generously gave the spotlight to her musicians; Sam Jones’ ‘Del Sasser’ demonstrated her perfect vocal control and diction (Joy is one of those singers who luxuriates in language) and her covers of Fats Navarro’s ‘Nostalgia’ and Thelonious Monk’s immortal ‘Round Midnight’ – with lyrics written by Joy herself – were spine-tingling. Betty Carter’s ‘Tight’ was a virtuoso display and ‘Beware My Heart’ featured a lengthy, compelling drums-piano dialogue. A mashup of Murray Grand and Elisse Boyd’s Broadway warhorse ‘Guess Who I Saw Today’ and Stevie Wonder’s ‘Lately’ was inspired, and showed her versatility, while a zestful version of the title track of her award-winning 2022 Verve album Linger Awhile oozed pure class.

After a lengthy ovation, Joy and her band retook the stage with a velvety, joyous version of ‘Can’t Get Out Of This Mood’, one of many highlights from Linger Awhile. A remarkable evening, then, one to savour and to lift the spirits on a drizzly London night – and to judge from the rapturous applause and (very) lengthy queues for merchandise, an occasion that everyone in the hall appreciated.

Following the concert, one is left with the thought: what is this remarkable young woman going to be like in 10, 20 or 30 years? There is so much more to come from this already stellar performer. Pure joy.

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