Jazz Concert Review: “Samara Joy: A Joyful Holiday” — A Prodigious Joy
By Allen Michie
Samara Joy uncorked her gospel pipes, the likes of which probably haven’t been heard on mainstream secular stages since Aretha Franklin.
Samara Joy, “A Joyful Holiday, Featuring the McLendon Family” Austin, Texas, Bass Concert Hall, December 3, 2023
I thought I knew what to expect from a Samara Joy Christmas concert, promoting her new album Samara Joy: A Joyful Holiday. The prodigious Joy is blessed with a sumptuous voice that sounds like butterscotch tastes. I assumed I’d hear a warm, creamy eggnog mix of ballads in the Nat Cole tradition, spiked with a dash of Dinah Washington’s jazzy R&B. Chestnuts would roast all by themselves just as soon as she pronounced the words with her rich tone and smooth delivery.
And they did. But there was, surprisingly, much, much more. At 22 years old, Joy is in her early prime, full of ideas, unjaded, and as surprised as anyone else at her own success. She sang every song like she meant it, and she was brought to tears three times (and held it back several times more). She uncorked her gospel pipes, the likes of which probably haven’t been heard on mainstream secular stages since Aretha Franklin.
She also sang a Betty Carter tune (“Tight”) and served Cécile McLorin Salvant notice that there’s a new gunslinger in town. (I can’t wait for their inevitable duet or live showdown. She’s lately been recording with Salvant’s pianist, Sullivan Fortner). She showed that Sarah Vaughan isn’t her only point of reference — Whitney Houston is in there, too, as is a dose of Stevie Wonder. Her rediscovery of the latter’s lovely Christmas song, “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me,” was a refreshing and delightful addition to the standard Christmas repertoire.
What made the concert special to her, and to the full audience at The University of Texas at Austin’s expansive Bass Concert Hall, was the addition of four of Joy’s family members: her father Antonio McLendon, her uncle Laurone McLendon, and her cousins Tiera Lovell Rowe and Thomas Niblack. Joy told the story of how she grew up among multiple generations of singers, and it never occurred to her as a child that every family didn’t just break out into song throughout the day. She explained how meaningful it was to her and her family that her recent success allowed them to realize their dream of singing together as a family, on stage, bringing their uplifting message to the world. This sense of family unity, gratitude, and purpose truly came through in the music, conveying an unclichéd and uncloying sense of holiday spirit. Their first piece was a spine-tingling “O Holy Night” (released here as a digital single) that brought the crowd to its feet.
Antonio McLendon, who once toured with Andraé Crouch’s gospel choir, is a superb singer and electric bassist (and sometimes both simultaneously, scatting along with his playing à la George Benson). Joy wisely featured several of his compositions and elegantly precise vocal arrangements. Some record executive needs to sign this guy, like RIGHT NOW. His duet with Joy on “The Christmas Song” was a viral YouTube hit last year for all the right reasons. You could close your eyes and, with a little imagination, hear what it would have been like if Sarah Vaughan had done a duet with Luther Vandross. They’re in that league.
If you think a Samara Joy Christmas concert might be a little too Diana Krall for your taste, think again. This was a rousing gospel revival and a swinging jazz celebration. Yes there were some of Joy’s smokey jazz chamber pieces, but even these were infused with a rare spirit this night. Her hit version of that usually tired standard “Guess Who I Saw Today” paused before the final key word of the song as she segued into Stevie Wonder’s “Lately,” a brilliant stroke that made a moving digression into the silent tortured mind of the singer just before she finishes her conversation with an unfaithful lover. The stunned audience rose again to its feet. It was a reminder that Joy is as masterful a storyteller as she is a straight jazz singer.
This one’s not to be missed if she comes to your town.
Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, Texas. He’s the moderator of the Jazztodon.com instance on Mastodon and the Miles Davis Discussion Group on Facebook. You can read an archive of his essays and reviews allenmichie.medium.com.