Concert Review | Samara Joy 

click to enlarge Samara Joy performed at Kodak Hall on Friday, June 28.

LOUIS RESSEL

Samara Joy performed at Kodak Hall on Friday, June 28.

“We have quite a bit of catching up to do.”

That’s how Samara Joy, the 24-year-old jazz vocal sensation who infuses old standards with vibrant new energy, greeted her audience in Rochester. A few songs into her Friday night show at the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival — a theater set with a club atmosphere — Joy paused to acknowledge how the Flower City and the fest itself helped shape the road she’s taken over the past few years.

But first, she got to work.

Commanding Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre and leading a seven-piece band, Joy delivered mesmerizing takes on tunes from giants like Sun Ra, Billie Holiday and Charles Mingus.
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  • LOUIS RESSEL

Her songbook is deep; a major highlight found Joy and her band ripping through “Tight,” a dizzyingly fast Betty Carter gem from the mid-1970s. It showcased everything that makes Joy, a multiple Grammy winner, such a talent: her musical power combined with studiousness and an urge to effusively share her favorite discoveries with the audience.

Before Joy performed a tune composed by Barry Harris, a departed jazz pianist and mentor, she paid tribute to his legacy as an educator. She also blended two blissful compositions, Thelonious Monk’s “San Francisco Holiday” and Horace Silver’s “Peace,” honoring the greats by finding their common themes. A true student always can.

Members of her top-notch, energetic band arranged many of the versions, and Joy was quick to credit them by name. It’s what a good bandleader does.

Joy’s own history with the fest mirrors her broader rise internationally. She first performed in 2022 at Max of Eastman Place, which holds about 150. When she returned last year, she shined at the 400-seat Kilbourn Hall. That makes Kodak Hall’s 2,100 seats quite the expansion — and Joy seized her moment.

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“I’m falling more and more in love with Rochester,” she sang at one point, and she sounded like she really meant it.

Notably, Joy was one of two Gen Z jazz vocal icons headlining the fest in 2024, along with Icelandic sensation Laufey.

Joy’s arrival at Kodak Hall didn’t necessitate her going bigger with her performance style to match a larger space. Instead, it was as if she’d finally found a venue big enough to match the star power she’s always had.

Along with that power came plenty of musical athleticism. It’s cliché, but what other description fits what Joy does with her voice? When she sang a Billie Holiday tune that Holiday herself never got around to recording, she embodied the spirit of one of her greatest antecedents.

“You can hear the pain in this,” Joy said before the mournful tune kicked off with a weary trumpet. Before long, she was delivering tricky cadences in Portuguese for Antônio Carlos Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade.”

Joy, a 2021 graduate of SUNY Purchase’s jazz studies program, remains studious in her approach to the genre she began exploring as an undergrad. Onstage, she showed real love for her chosen field, bending her voice and dazzling with vocal runs that occasionally morphed into gospel.

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She’s also honed her pen. Early in the set, Joy and her ensemble took up “Reincarnation of a Love Bird,” Mingus’ ode to troubled saxophonist Charlie Parker. Joy wrote and sang her own words, putting her stamp on the rich jazz legacies that came before her.

Joy leaned into being an emerging bright spot in that very tradition. At one point, speaking about her own growth as a touring artist, she laughed and rated adulthood a lean six out of ten. But whether she's a kid or a full-grown dynamo, there’s no mistaking her vision for anything except that of a world-class professional.

When Joy introduced her song “Sweet Pumpkin” to raucous cheers, she basked in that moment while seemingly trying to store it for later. If that energy remains, perhaps next year’s festival organizers can look into booking Blue Cross Arena.

Patrick Hosken is an arts writer for CITY. He can be reached at [email protected].
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