“I can’t sing like anyone else but me” says Samara Joy. The New York-born singer, who won the 2019 Sarah Vaughan Competition, is a rising star in jazz. Feature by John Fordham.
Tell a jazz fan you’ve heard the hot news that a young American singer has emerged whose idols include Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole, and you might not be that surprised if they don’t bite your hand off to get the rest of the story. The classic songs of those long-gone vocal magicians, and the deceptively effortless ways their guileful timing and spontaneity would spin fresh meanings from the laconic poetry of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, have enthralled and inspired countless would-be jazz singers across the generations. The immense influence of that legacy for the few that the world gets to notice, and the many for whom it becomes a lifetime’s private pleasure shows no sign of fading away.
But then you could tell the jazz fan that while the new standards-singer on the block is certainly a devoted student of the tradition, and was skilled enough by 19 years old to win America’s competitive Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition (video), she’s astutely aware of the difference between the stories of those old legends and her own as a young woman in 21st century New York.
That young woman is Samara Joy, the gospel-raised vocalist from the Bronx whose self-titled debut album featuring a dozen ageless classics of the Great American Songbook is released on Whirlwind this month. Joy has stamped an identity of rare maturity on much-travelled chronicles of life and love like ‘Stardust’ and ‘Lover Man’ – but balanced it with an affectingly candid simplicity that manages to be both musically sonorous and as plain as speech, a mix of confident shrewdness and sometimes the wonderment of a young girl alone in her room, musing to the mirror about the fascinating mysteries of a life just coming into view.
With the award-winning former Blue Note and Warner Bros producer Matt Pierson on board, and Italian-born guitar virtuoso Pasquale Grasso‘s trio (with bassist Ari Roland and experienced drummer Kenny Washington) supplying a torrent of glistening countermelodies, sumptuous harmonies and surefooted grooves, Samara Joy has hit the ground running. American journalist Will Friedwald, a respected and prolific expert in jazz and popular singing, says that her voice and music sound to him ‘like she’s connected to the entire history of jazz all at once – as if she were existing in every era simultaneously, she sounds both classic and contemporary.’
Joy only graduated from New York’s SUNY Purchase college in spring of this year, and is still getting acclimatised to becoming a recording artist with A-list playing partners, international tour dates (only on hold because of ongoing pandemic restrictions), and African-American movie giants Spike Lee and Regina King rooting for her on radio as a reincarnation of Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald in the same body. But if Joy is still blinking in the glare of rising-star exposure, there’s no uncertainty about how she got here and who and what she owes it to.
‘I’d say my voice was always there,’ Joy muses, ‘but it may have taken some years imitating my family, a couple years singing in church combined with listening to and imitating Sarah and Ella in school to bring it to the forefront. I was immediately attracted to the richness of Sarah’s tone as well as her range and unique way of styling a song, the clarity of Ella’s voice, and Billie’s rhythm as well as the raw emotion she conveys. But though my sound is still changing with every new influence I listen to, I can’t sing like anyone else but me.’
Joy grew up in New York, in a household with music all around her. Her paternal grandparents, Elder Goldwire and Ruth McLendon, had led the popular Savettes gospel group in Philadelphia, and her father played bass and sang with Andraé Crouch, the celebrated gospel singer, producer and Christian pastor who worked with Michael Jackson and Madonna, and whose music figured in the movie soundtracks of The Lion King and The Color Purple.
‘My dad performed with Andraé Crouch, but it was his own original songs, as well as the album my family made back in the 90s called The McLendon Family that had the biggest impression on me early on,’ Joy recalls. ‘The harmonies were so clean and full, so I tried to sing a different part – alto, soprano, and tenor, every time I listened to them. It all comes back to my family for me. As a child, I wasn’t sure about becoming a musician, but I just knew I loved to hear my family sing. At Thanksgiving, after we all ate and got reacquainted – since we all live in different areas – somebody would bring out the piano and start playing a familiar hymn. Sometimes we’d take turns singing individually, and some songs we’d sing all together. It’s such a beautiful, loving, and heartwarming experience. I still dread having to leave and go back to my home after every holiday, knowing these moments won’t happen again until the next one.’
Samara Joy discovered Broadway musicals in middle school – and as she had with gospel, used the material to stretch the range of her voice, playing with different tone colours to fit the characters she was playing. Then came the disciplined apprenticeship in her family’s tradition, when at 16 she joined the choir at her local church, and eventually became a worship leader, singing three services a week for nearly two years. ‘That was my training,’ Joy says. ‘and it definitely helped me to build the confidence to sing in front of people.’
By this stage of her young life, Samara Joy was growing fast as a public performer, and developing the emotional expressiveness of tone and dynamics required to minister to a church congregation. But at Fordham High School for the Arts in the Bronx she also discovered jazz, performing with the school jazz band (winning Best Vocalist in Jazz At Lincoln Center’s high school band competition with Duke Ellington’s ‘I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart’), and then enrolling on the jazz programme at SUNY Purchase. In these intense few years of study, Samara Joy put together a technique to propel everything she can think or feel on the fly – evident on her debut album in the calm deliberation and airy delicacy with which she unfurls the Nat King Cole classic ‘Stardust’, the playful uptempo ironies of ‘Everything Happens To Me’, the mix of regret and realism in ‘It Only Happens Once’, or the mid-range purr and capricious audacity of phrasing on ‘Lover Man’, maybe the toughest of songs for a vocalist of any age to make their own.
‘When I sang “I Let A Song Go Out of My Heart” at high school it was chosen for me, and when I auditioned for Purchase and was accepted I sang it because it was the only standard I knew, so I can’t say I was that familiar with jazz then,’ Samara Joy disarmingly observes. ‘But I was introduced to recordings of early Ella and Sarah Vaughan while learning the repertoire for the Purchase courses, and that’s what really drew me into it. Hearing Ella scat on live recordings from Jazz at The Philharmonic concerts or Sarah singing “Lover Man” at a 1956 concert in Sweden, I was shocked I hadn’t heard it before, but also excited to learn how to do even a portion of what they were doing. But I didn’t know anything technically about jazz before I got to school, so all of my understanding came from my professors and peers, for being so patient with my questions and helping me so much.’
It’s a testament to the openness of that circle of teachers and friends, and Joy’s handling of a very steep learning curve, that she was able to win the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition so soon after spreading her jazz wings. But her debut album sprang from both her formidable talent and fortunate happenstance – producer Matt Pierson had been one of the Vaughan competition judges, and Joy had sat in with guitarist Pasquale Grasso in a masterclass at Purchase, and thus the crucial elements in the planning and playing of the recording fell into place. But if Samara Joy now seems destined for a dizzying ascent to jazz stardom, the odds are firmly against her losing her way on the trip. Her family roots and sense of community are strong, and augmenting them now is a deepening insight into the healing and nurturing qualities of the way jazz works.
‘Studying jazz encourages both awareness of the past but also how to express yourself,’ Joy says. ‘Learning a melody, but then phrasing it your own way. Or even writing your own melody inspired by a standard. Transcribing a solo and putting it on your respective “horn” in order to absorb another musician’s ideas, adding to your own toolbox of unique personal expression. The same way that each member in a band brings their individual strengths and unique ideas to work together and produce beautiful music may be a concept that the human race needs to grasp right about now.
‘As the song goes, people make the world go round.’
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Samara Joy’s eponymously-titled debut album is released on 9 July 2021 on Whirlwind Recordings.
LINKS: Samara Joy’s website