Okay so before I get too far along with this post I have to declare a fairly strong bias. Alex Samaras is one of my favourite singers. He's performed with my big band on numerous occasions. I've seen him perform in a variety of settings. And I've booked him for the Festival. As far as I'm concerned, from a fundamental quality of instrument standpoint, from a musical interpretation standpoint, from an emotional connection to the music standpoint...he's simply one of the best. All of which, in short, answers the title of this post. But let's explore a bit more about Alex in advance of his show this Sunday night as part of the Geary Lane Jazz Series.
Since graduating from the University of Toronto's Jazz Performance Program, Alex has made his mark on the local, national and international voice scenes (jazz, but also contemporary classical and more) in part for his impressive technical ability, but I would argue it's his musical approach which especially sets him apart. I cannot think of a single Alex Samaras performance I've experienced in which he did not put 100% of himself into the presentation. Whether he's singing Radiohead, a classic swing tune, or embarking on a free improvisation, he makes the music his own. A few weeks back, singing as part of the Tafelmusik Haus Musik celebration of Yorkville's musical legacy, he sounded completely at ease singing "Both Sides Now," among other classics, paired up with baroque oboe, bassoon, violin and harpsichord along with bassist (and arranger) Andrew Downing. For a sample of his skill as an interpreter, check out Alex's interpretation of Stephen Sondheim's "If you can find me I'm here":
To his benefit, I feel that Alex is also deliberate with the repertoire he chooses to perform. This may seem obvious - why would anyone perform anything they ultimately didn't want to perform? - but I think it demonstrates remarkable maturity as an artist. Understanding what works and doesn't work for your voice type, or what you can and cannot present in a connected, authentic way, takes years of experience. Often times when discussing repertoire in advance of a performance with my band, for example, Alex will be perfectly up front and say "That song is fine, but it's not my favourite to perform." As a result, when we see Alex perform, we can feel confident that he's chosen repertoire which truly resonates with him and which, in my opinion, allows the maximum possible emotional connection with the music - a connection he passes on to his audience. And the same applies to the various projects he takes on. When he performed at the Festival with Grex in 2018, it was one of the most moving musical experiences I've had as an audience member - for the repertoire selected, but also for the deeply grounded way in which it was presented. Also on the bill that night was Alex's group Tryal (I couldn't stay for that set). Technically, Tryal takes a unique approach to electronic pop. But in this sample, we get to hear Alex's outstanding voice almost a cappella:
Technically, this Sunday night's performance is a big band show with Alex singing out front. But it's bound to be so much more: Alex has carefully curated the repertoire and has assembled an excellent lineup of musicians (18 of them!) to help him present what he's hoping will be a more immersive experience - more "long-form poem or monologue" than standard big band show. Looking at the repertoire list (you'll have to come to the show to find out) - which primarily features local composers and arrangers - I can safely say it's going to be a highly-charged journey.
Join Alex and friends this Sunday night at Geary Lane. It's an early show - doors at 6 pm, show at 7 pm; tickets available at the door. Full details here. And please cheer loudly on my behalf - I had hoped to be back in time from a trip to Poland, but I'll be landing right around the time the show is ending...