Time to Be Adventurous

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Samara Joy performing at the 2023 Monterey Jazz Festival.

(Photo: Nic Coury)

Samara Joy posted a personal video on her social media this fall in which her grandfather, Elder Goldwire McLendon, is singing “It Is Well With My Soul,” surrounded by relatives gathered in a diner to celebrate his 93rd birthday. At the chorus, the family begins to harmonize in an impromptu gospel concert. The snippet, not even a minute-and-a-half long, received about 4 million views on TikTok. Joy had only joined the platform 10 months earlier.

“I don’t think I fully realized how rich my family musical legacy is,” Joy said. “I just thought it was normal, that we get together, and we sing. That’s what we do as a family. I’m just now realizing how special it is to have that kind of thing, spanning across generations.”

Joy, who grew up in the Bronx as Samara Joy McLendon, first received international attention with her 2019 win at the Sarah Vaughan Competition — one of the most competitive vocal jazz contests in the world. Within three years, she had released her trio-backed, crowdfunded debut, Samara Joy, on Whirlwind Recordings; charmed audiences on early morning and late-night TV; and begun touring globally. And last February, she became the second jazz musician ever — after esperanza spalding — to take home the Best New Artist Grammy, for Linger Awhile, her second album and Verve debut. (The record also won Best Jazz Vocal Album against such revered singers as Cécile McLorin Salvant, The Manhattan Transfer and The Baylor Project.)

Even among those from similarly musical backgrounds, Joy is a rarity, not just for these early successes but for her confounding, inexplicable grasp of jazz idioms. Consider that before she’d won the Sarah Vaughan Competition, and before she’d received the Ella Fitzgerald Scholarship at SUNY-Purchase in New York, the school from which she graduated in 2021, she’d barely listened to the legendary singers whose names these awards bear. Most astonishing, she’d never really scatted.

“When I first started to become interested in jazz, it was a sound that I wasn’t used to hearing,” she said. “I didn’t listen to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan growing up. College was really my first deep-dive into their styles. When thinking about music and a career, I knew I loved to sing. But I loved listening to gospel and R&B and soul and Motown, and I wasn’t sure which route I should take.”

Despite this uncertainty, Joy found the vocal jazz program at SUNY–Purchase a welcoming environment for her inquisitive mind. And when, as part of the program, she started listening to vocalists like Abbey Lincoln, Carmen McRae and Betty Carter, she realized that jazz singers have always been stylistic innovators.

“This encouraged me to develop my voice further, so that I could not only imitate — because I do like to imitate — but also explore my individuality, what singing jazz means to me, as someone with a diverse background of influences,” she explained.

Joy’s diverse influences — especially those that derive from the oral music traditions of the African diaspora — have likely provided the young singer with a ready template for understanding jazz improvisation. And modeling the licks, grooves and colors of a master soloist’s performances is, arguably, the pedagogical pathway that all the jazz greats have followed. In this, Joy is no exception. For most, however, it takes longer than two years to rise from neophyte to exemplar.

“I didn’t improvise much before school. If I knew solos, they were from [instrumental tunes]. I didn’t even realize that it was Dizzy [Gillespie] on the Stevie Wonder song ‘Do I Do,’” Joy said, by way of example. “So, when I was listening to instrumental music, I knew they were playing solos but didn’t realize I was learning them. I guess I did scat at some point, but not in that way.”

Joy recorded Samara Joy while she was still at SUNY, soon after her triumph at the Sassy Awards. The album’s dozen tunes, all songbook standards, reflect her refined interests as a then-
vocal student — the rich phrasing of McRae (“If You’d Stay The Way I Dream About You”), the sweet romanticism of Nat “King” Cole (“Stardust”), the vulnerable assertion of Billie Holiday (“But Beautiful”). She scats only enough to reveal her knowing way around a solo; for Joy, improvisation informs her approach to the melody and lyrics as much as anything else. This approach, coupled with a generous stage demeanor, renders her performances eminently accessible to a broad audience.

“The album released a couple of months after I graduated,” Joy recalled. “That was when everything started.”

“Everything” being radio play, media interviews, a major label contract, more industry honors, invitations to perform at international festivals and in premier concert spaces and a massive following on social media. Before long, the singer was touring the world at a rate of about 300 gigs in a year.

In 2022, Joy signed a three-record deal with Verve. Linger Awhile was the first of these, produced and released within 14 months of her eponymous debut. For this effort, she again paired up with guitarist Pasquale Grasso and drummer Kenny Washington, both former professors of hers at SUNY and mainstays of the rhythm section on her first record.

She also added piano and some horns, necessarily implementing more involved arrangements, with bassist David Wong taking over from Ari Roland. But where Samara Joy documents the singer’s precocity as a jazz newcomer, Linger Awhile documents her arrival as a star.

First off, Joy’s vocal delivery on the standard repertoire now bears the confidence of one who has been gigging relentlessly among the jazz glitterati. On “Social Call,” she displays not just a more assured exploration of melodic variation, but a broader dynamic range. On “I’m Confessin’ That I Love You,” she blends her usual deep contralto with a surprisingly facile upper register. And on the title cut she swings so expertly that it gives the lie to her rookie status.

Joy also steps out as a lyricist and adept interpreter of vocalese, the art of writing words to fit a recognized instrumental solo. Her self-penned vocalese track “Nostalgia (The Day I Knew)” uses trumpeter Fats Navarro’s solo from his 1947 original, “Nostalgia”; her innocent, romantic lyrics settle fittingly on the rangy melody line as she develops the charming narrative (a nod to her parents’ longtime marriage). Further, she acknowledges Jon Hendricks, the undisputed vocalese master, by revisiting his seldom-heard lyrics on Thelonious Monk’s “’Round Midnight,” their darker story brightened by a ringing horn arrangement.

It’s on Linger Awhile, perhaps, that we find a portent of Joy’s creative development as a jazz singer. Citing an “organic” approach to album-making, she not only draws inspiration from traditional jazz role models, but also from the present-day musicians in her immediate environment: former classmates and teachers, newly met celebrities and, of course, her family.

“I see myself incorporating more of my lyrics into my work and collaborating more with the arrangers and composers I’ve been working with live, but on recordings,” she said. “I want to write and release ‘new standards’ — adding repertoire to the jazz idiom. We can move the music forward by adding individual voices, like myself and other artists in this space, through adding repertoire.”

In this way, Joy would be following the path of fellow singers Cécile McLorin Salvant and Jazzmeia Horn, both of whom, like Joy, burst onto the jazz scene with early awards and rapid ascents in the public eye.

“Cécile and Jazzmeia are probably my main contemporary influences,” Joy said. “I love their writing and the fact that they do original material, that they rework standards in their own way, and have their unique bands as well.”

Like these contemporaries, too, Joy adopts a more hands-on role when it comes to project leading and self-promotion. These days, artistic autonomy demands a level of career involvement that early jazz singers could hardly have imagined.

“My peers are releasing EPs on their own, doing all of the jobs that normally would be left up to a label,” Joy observed. “They’re taking full creative control over the projects, which I admire. And I love that they also find a way to incorporate their friends and peers into their projects. I love how community-
based it is.”

To be clear, Joy doesn’t in the least underestimate the career benefits that major representation offers. And winning Best New Artist for her first major release “is a moment that I’ll never take for granted,” she said.

But “I wanted to maintain some level of independence [with the label]. So, in all the conversations that I have creatively, when it comes to album covers or songs or the musicians that I play with, they always ensure that I am a part of the conversation.”

In that conversation, Joy has a lot to say. To understand just how much, it helps to listen to some of her one-offs on Verve: single releases that reveal aspects of the singer’s talent that stand outside of her two LP releases. On her 2022 cover of Adele’s “Someone Like You,” for instance, Joy unleashes a powerful display of gospel virtuosity through the simple construct of the pop ballad.

She brings this same force — the belt, the sustained notes, the infectious riffing — to “Tight,” her remake of the Betty Carter tune released last September and nominated for a 2024 Grammy for Best Jazz Performance in November. Clearly, as a singer, Joy has more going on internally than swinging and scatting.

“What I’ve been working on is being comfortable accessing any part of my range, without any sort of break or hesitation,” Joy said. “You never stop being a student. You never stop trying to top yourself and what you did before.”

Already, however, Joy faces the conundrum that such creative expansion presents. Given audiences’ appreciation for her traditional jazz persona, how will they respond to her identity as a modern singer scanning new horizons?

“Because Linger Awhile was a success, people ask me, ‘Do you feel that you have a certain responsibility to keep the tradition, to save jazz?’” Joy said. “It’s a bit bizarre to me. I just entered this space, and it’s because of this one album. It’s a special time, and I’m not going to downgrade it.

“But I feel that, above everything, I want to be honest with myself and about what I want to do musically. And if I have an idea but feel I can’t venture into it because of our responsibility to keep the music alive, then I’m only contributing even further to its death, because I’m not growing.

“All of my contemporary and ‘traditional’ heroes, they all grew. They all had different eras [in which] to explore their sound, and then it was something else. It never loses its foundation — it’s not without its roots, not without its history. It’s just that from that foundation, you have a platform to grow and have your own artistic voice. That’s the only responsibility I have: to pursue my artistic voice.”

In September, Joy released her second Verve album, the six-track EP A Joyful Holiday, a mixed sampling of seasonal tunes, some extending from her debut sessions with the label and others recalling her church upbringing. Verve had released two of these tracks as unrelated singles a year earlier: the retro confection “Warm In December,” featuring the Linger Awhile rhythm section, and a soulful, organ-backed version of “O, Holy Night,” with three generations of McLendons providing gospel interpolations. The common ground on these two pieces is Joy’s stylistically tempered vocals, the difference split between persuasion and power.

Similarly, the inclusion of two contrasting takes of “The Christmas Song” on the album only emphasize Joy’s creative flexibility.

The studio version, a smooth ballad with subdued comping, remains resolutely focused on Joy’s resonant instrument and sophisticated turns of melodic phrase. The live-recorded version, a duet between the vocalist and her father, gospel singer Antonio McLendon, highlights the harmonic rapport and emotional ease shared between the two family members. It’s easy to imagine that in Joy’s universe, these two tracks are complementary — rather than competing — musical statements.

Joy expects to release her third Verve album next fall, though the specifics are still being sorted. As with her previous records, she’s allowing the ideas to flow organically from the people and the projects in her purview.

“I’m not sure what the third album completely is going to be,” she admits. “I know that I want to incorporate live tracks from my octet project, in addition to some tracks recorded in the studio. I want to document what we’ve been working on live. But this octet project has been my main love.”

The octet represents Joy’s pursuit of yet another musical interest: jazz orchestration. Inspired by the work of historic bandleaders like Duke Ellington, Joy recently began to explore the possibility of broadening into larger ensemble structures via this newest collaboration: a piano-based rhythm section plus trumpet, trombone, and alto and tenor saxophones.

“I love orchestration,” she said. “Any sort of big band, small group, anything. So, I wanted to find some way to incorporate it into what I do.”

One of Joy’s initial forays into jazz orchestration appear on the deluxe edition of Linger Awhile, with its alternate studio versions of the album’s original track listings. Tucked away on Amazon Music, the only purveyor of this particular bonus track, is Joy’s horn-based rendition of “Lush Life,” as envisioned by the album’s tenor saxophonist/arranger Kendric McCallister. For this sleek, dramatic reframe of the romantic Strayhorn down-tempo, McCallister received a 2024 Grammy nomination for Best Arrangement.

Such an auspicious leap into jazz orchestration heralds good things for Joy’s work with her octet. Though the group lacks an official introduction (they’ve yet to decide on a name or even if they want one), Joy has been playing select gigs with the ensemble for some time, including high-profile performances at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Chicago Symphony Center and the Hollywood Bowl. From her posts on social media, one notes that in these larger venues, supported by the octet’s galvanizing intensity, Joy’s vocals skyrocket, seemingly without limit.

This said, when it comes to Joy’s career, it’s far easier to parse her immediate next steps than her boundless options. Already, she’s thinking beyond the octet to a bigger group and debating whether to add strings to the current recording project or the next one. Now, as she heads into her second Grammy season as a contender, her focus remains on the next Verve record, a lighter touring schedule and the evolving creative partnership with her octet.

She holds the latter open-handedly. Her sidemen don’t require much direction, she said, and she wants their creative minds to run free.

“There’s some adventurous arranging, for sure,” she said. “But that’s what this time is for. It’s to be adventurous.” DB



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