Samara Joy
Samara Joy with the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra | Credit: Luis Luque/Luque Photography

The concluding Jazz at Naz concert at The Soraya on March 26 was a while in the coming. It was supposed to happen on Feb. 11, but the show’s center of attention, the 23-year-old rising-star singer Samara Joy, had to cancel on doctor’s orders, feeling “under the weather” after all the hoopla surrounding her unexpected double victory at the Grammys.

Fortunately, the concert was immediately rescheduled, and ultimately, everything turned out for the best. That Joy chose to briefly get off the fast train of success for the sake of her health indicates that she’s in it for the long haul and has sound judgment.

The first half of the evening was all Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra, the crack Los Angeles-based outfit that resurfaces from time to time whenever the co-leaders’ busy schedules of individual projects allow. When the band came out swinging hard on the first notes of “Georgia on My Mind” Sunday night, with Rickey Woodard soloing on gritty tenor sax, you got the sensation that all was right in the world and nothing else mattered beyond a veteran big band springing to life at the peak of its form.

Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra
John Clayton conducts the Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra | Credit: Luis Luque/Luque Photography

A few of the original members from the band’s founding in 1985 are still in their chairs, as well as other veteran soloists familiar to L.A. audiences. Jeff Hamilton still drives the band with irresistible swing that never gets in the way of the ever-personable John Clayton’s subtle, distinctively harmonized arrangements, like that of “(Back Home Again in) Indiana.” There was humor in the run-up on dueling double basses before the walking theme of Charles Mingus’s “Haitian Fight Song.” The tune of “On the Sunny Side of the Street” was assigned to the four unison trombones, and a somewhat out-of-left-field choice of Billy Joel’s “And So It Goes” elicited a delicate, subtle chart from Clayton and fine soloing by alto saxophonist Keith Fiddmont. A funky blues chart on Horace Silver’s “The Jody Grind,” faithful to the feeling of the boogaloo, closed the first half.

Samara Joy McLendon is her full name, but she just uses Samara Joy professionally. She has put out just two albums, Samara Joy (Whirlwind Recordings) and Linger Awhile (Verve), since graduating from SUNY Purchase in May 2021, yet already she is causing some jazz folk to wonder whether there really is such a thing as reincarnation.

Jeff Hamilton, Samara Joy, and John Clayton
Jeff Hamilton, Samara Joy, and John Clayton at The Soraya | Credit: Luis Luque/Luque Photography

In Joy’s case, it would be a double reincarnation. Her agile upper range is like that of Ella Fitzgerald. Her swooping lower range resembles that of Sarah Vaughan. Striking a majestic stage presence, she exudes self-confidence and poise when she dips in and out of her ranges in the same song, as if she has been singing for decades and decades.

Joy turned in an astonishingly mature ballad performance of her late teacher Barry Harris’s “Now and Then.” She tackled April in Paris” in both English and French. Her ability to swing was thoroughly in the groove when she sang with just Hamilton’s brushes on a snare drum and Clayton on double bass (she said it was the first time she tried this kind of thing in public). She could wail with the full big band in swing mode on the Gigi Gryce/Jon Hendricks concert closer “Social Call,” returning with a sauntering, lengthy blues encore that sent her high into her Ella range.

Joy can apparently do whatever she wants with her technique, and it will be interesting to see where she takes her art from this point onward. Yet she is at the same point in her development that Wynton Marsalis was at 23. He, too, sounded like a mature artist then, flawlessly recreating on the trumpet the historical styles that he had learned. However Wynton wasn’t able to really get inside of your bones emotionally as a musician until many years after his breakthrough (some still think he can’t, but I disagree). Joy has all the tools to make that happen someday, so let’s see what develops.