WICN Artist of the Month, January 2023: Samara Joy
Written by Doug Hall on January 1, 2023
The voice as an instrument, particularly in jazz, is a fascinating vehicle for musical expression.
In the category of female vocalists there are the established legends – think Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday. They each have a different style and treatment of their personal interpretations of a jazz standard, original composition, or covering an established ballad or love song. In fact, they come close to owning a particular song by their distinctive vocal signature – Fitzgerald’s rendition of Cheek to Cheek and Dream a Little Dream, or Vaughan’s Misty and Send in the Clowns, and Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit and God Bless the Child.
Already recognized contemporary and recently established talents including Cécile McLorin Salvant, Jazzmeia Horn, and Lizz Wright all show a direction in pushing boundaries and embracing exploration. In particular, Salvant’s Ghost Story, Grammy-nominated for Best Jazz Album for ‘22 and Downbeat’s Editor’s Pick, is cited by critics as “taking chances” and “not seeking definition – but change.”
Currently on the jazz scene is another emerging wave of younger, exciting and dynamic vocal talent. Amongst this pool is the enormously gifted vocalist Samara Joy, who has already, at 23, performed with Wynton Marsalis, Christian McBride, Terri Lyne Carrington and currently touring with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra in Big Band Holidays as well as competing for Best New Artist and Jazz Vocal Album at the Grammy’s in February.
Samara Joy is just beginning her career exploration and has received specific attention for her maturity and sophistication in song phrasing and arrangement. Christian McBride, renowned bassist, bandleader and artistic director of the Newport Jazz Festival, judged Joy in the Sarah Vaughan Competition and finds her vocals “full of wisdom” and reflected, “It’s spooky; she sounds and tells a story like an elder,” he said in a phone interview recently for a New York Times feature article about Joy. McBride also observed a quality that can’t be taught and seems intrinsic to Joy’s personality: “But I think what I love most about her — and I pray that the challenges in life don’t change this — is she’s always positive. She’s got such a fun, positive spirit.” Clearly, the jazz community is very excited about this young artist’s combination of natural and musical gifts.
Joy’s attention to the American Songbook reflects her own personal musical appreciation of these standards, but also a result of influence from listening to her jazz idols, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. She has already drawn critical attention for her sophisticated phrasing and range of treatment of classic jazz compositions exemplified by Can’t Get Out of This Mood by Nina Simone, Round Midnight by Thelonious Monk, and Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me. With each interpretation, Joy is adding her voice, as Fitzgerald, Vaughan and Salvant have done, as a unique creative rendition of American Songbook classics.
Born into a musical family, a Bronx, New York native, Joy didn’t discover jazz in a meaningful way until she enrolled in SUNY Purchase College as a voice major and was named an Ella Fitzgerald Scholar. While she was still in college, before the release of her first album Samara Joy (2021, Whirlwind Records), film director Regina King called her “a young woman who seems like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald are both living in her body.”
In 2019, as Samara McLendon, she won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. Joy graduated magna cum laude in 2021. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Samara_Joy)
Much as many young musicians have benefited by developing a following on social media, Joy’s early music videos found a significant audience, with one video song release receiving over 1.5 million views.
Her current album, Linger Awhile (2022, Verve Records), has received two Grammy nominations. The album teams her with noted musicians — guitarist Pasquale Grasso, pianist Ben Paterson, bassist David Wong and drummer Kenny Washington — on standards including Monk’s ‘Round Midnight and Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me.
On Linger Awhile, the quartet bolsters Joy, bringing an intimate recording sound to her refined and articulate vocal range, drawing the listener into a nightclub atmosphere. There are also ample opportunities on this release to hear her exploration of moods, tones, and emotions, coupled with superb technical control. As observed by fellow musicians and critics alike, Joy is mature beyond her years, phrasing these jazz standards to be artistically her own.
Joy is also clearly dedicated to understanding the history of jazz as well, and the genre’s most influential contributors, which she states, in turn, feeds her passion for vocal performance, “I look at all these influences — like Charlie Parker, like Duke Ellington, like Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan — and I think, these people were here, this is a young music, and they did so much in their lives to draw people to this type of music; it deserves to be talked about and shared. And as long as I’m passionate about it, that’s my goal — to share it.” With enormous potential and an exceptionally gifted voice, Joy’s career is taking off as we watch, and jazz has another youthful and dedicated interpreter as a result.