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Samara Joy shows the Great American Songbook still matters

Award-winning young singer Samara Joy’s debut album is a collection of standards that underlines why these songs remain important.

A couple of years ago, capitulating to an early mid-life crisis, I decided to go back to singing lessons. I told my teacher at our first meeting that I liked jazz, and she flipped open her piano stool and dug around for the sheet music for a standard called You Go To My Head. The words are simple enough – comparing the feeling of being in love to a state of drunken dizziness.

When she offered to demonstrate by singing it through I knew what would happen, but felt too awkward to say. She sang the first few bars, I started crying and, much to my embarrassment and likely hers too, I couldn’t stop. You Go To My Head was written 83 years ago on a Tin Pan Alley production line, and I don’t even drink, but some jazz songs have an emotional pull that bypasses the rational brain. That’s why they continue to be sung.

There is no definitive list of “jazz standards” – what we’ve come to know as the Great American Songbook is a collection of music written by jazz composers (such as Horace Silver’s Song For My Father or Duke Ellington’s In A Sentimental Mood), songs from stage shows (such as Ain’t Misbehavin’ by Fats Waller) and various early 20th-century pop songs that have caught the imagination of the jazz set and lent themselves well to improvisation.

Some of the most enduring standards are almost a century old, but their impact never seems to falter through the years. Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit, unflinchingly illustrating scenes of racist lynching in the South, is as affecting as any John Coltrane solo. And the visceral humidity created in the opening lines of George Gershwin’s Summertime is just as stifling now no matter how much the landscape has changed since 1935.

Jazz is being pushed to its creative limits by contemporary composers and players, and yet the Great American Songbook remains a rite of passage. A young singer called Samara Joy, who won the 2019 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition, recently released her debut album, a collection of standards that underlines why these songs still matter.

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It astounds me that a song like Stardust, written after the composer Hoagy Carmichael’s heart was broken in 1927, could still resonate with broken-hearted people in the year 2021. When Samara sings, “You wandered down the lane and far away/ Leaving me a song that will not die/ Love is now the stardust of yesterday/ The music of the years gone by,” something elemental is dredged up from memory to raise the hairs on the back of my neck.

Samara Joy is a relative latecomer to jazz. Although she was raised in a musical family (her grandparents led the Philadelphia gospel group, The Savettes) and her house was full of soul and Motown, her awareness of these songs came about academically through her music studies at State University of New York at Purchase, so she approaches classics such as Stardust, Moonglow and But Beautiful without a trace of nostalgia or sentimentality. Like all great singers do, she finds her own way to inhabit the words, regardless of how many times they’ve been sung before.

As far as best-loved standards go, John Coltrane’s take on My Favourite Things looms large. When I first heard his version I could barely connect it with the original, so far had it been expanded beyond the sum of its parts. Coltrane revels in his freedom to take the melody miles away in every direction with his saxophone.

Jazz singers, though often versatile, don’t have that same freedom, so their challenge is to find something entirely new within the peripheries of something old. The skill is in the conviction; a bit like an actor approaching Shakespeare or a writer retelling a Greek myth. Samara Joy singing The Trouble With Me Is You makes me feel like a voyeur listening in on an exasperated phone-call between her and her other half, despite the rules of courtship having changed since Nat King Cole sang those same words back in 1944.

My favourite standard is called Where Or When. It was written for a 1930s musical comedy called Babes in Arms and has been somewhat crowded out by two runaway hits from that same show, The Lady Is A Tramp and My Funny Valentine. I never really noticed it either, until I heard Peggy Lee singing it with Benny Goodman. Something about the way she turns the notes captures so perfectly the feeling of meeting someone for the first time but knowing on a deeper, less-cerebral level, that you must have met before. The same way a great standard tends to stop time – new and familiar all at once.

Anne Frankenstein is a broadcaster on Jazz FM

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