Samara Joy brought back old school jazz. It won two Grammys

  • By Mark Savage
  • BBC Music Writer

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Joy’s velvety-smooth alto recalls the golden age of jazz singers

When Samara Joy sings, the world stops. Confusion disappears, shoulders relax, peace seems possible.

The 23-year-old has a voice that is timeless and fresh, mixing old-school jazz with the R&B vocalist he grew up with.

Not a household name, but those who know, know.

And last month, the Grammys gave him the best seal of approval – giving him the best jazz sound album and, more importantly, the best new artist.

Recent winners of the latter award include household names such as Billie Eilish and Olivia Rodrigo. In order to win, Joy must beat regular charts like Latto, Måneskin and Wet Leg.

Speaking in London a month after the ceremony, he recalled the moment when Rodrigo opened the envelope and read his name.

“I closed my eyes and I was holding my little brother’s hand, and when he said my name I was like, ‘Oh gun, oh gun, oh gun!’

“All these people stood up for me, Adele, Lizzo, Taylor Swift … so I was very humbled, very humbled.”

But when he got on stage, a cold feeling came over him.

“I left my phone,” he laughs, “my whole speech was just sitting on the table!”

After shyly thanking him, the night improved greatly.

“Beyoncé told me to congratulate me after the show, which is ridiculous. I’m in the same room as Beyonce? And she knows I’m there? It’s just crazy.”

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The singer said he only refrained from crying about being named best new artist because he was “already crying” after winning best jazz album on the night.

However, to reach this stage, Joy must be used to receiving benefits.

Although she only learned jazz five years ago, she has already won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, and received the Ella Fitzgerald Memorial Scholarship.

His voice is warm and sweet, lingering on the notes as if he were tasting wine, and brimming with intense emotion.

He credits some of that to his producer/manager, Matt Pierson, who told him to “pretend like a microphone is the ear of the person listening to you”.

But he also has a natural ability to take an old situation and make it sound like words torn from his diary.

It is a process that causes confusion for fans who are not well versed in the jazz repertoire.

“People are like, ‘I love your song, Guess Who’ I Saw Today?’ And I’m like, ‘I wish it was just me!’ he said about his latest single, originally released by Nancy Wilson.

“Others are like, ‘Wow, I’ve never heard of that song before and it’s such a great story’. I find it amazing how people connect with it.”

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Born Samara Joy McLendon, the singer grew up in the Bronx, New York, in a sheltered, religious home.

“My parents were very protective, my father picked us up and took us to school, we went to church together, we didn’t go to the store, I never went out at night something like that.”

An inquisitive student, he devoured youth fiction (“unpopular, cheap”) and competed in codeathons with his school’s computer science club.

But there was still music. His paternal grandparents were Elder Goldwire and Ruth McLendon, who formed one of Philadelphia’s gospel outfits, The Savettes; and her father was a bass player who toured with gospel icon Andraé Crouch.

Joy also tried the bass, but singing really made her happy.

“I had an old iPod Nano and my dad would put music on for me. I remember listening to Lalah Hathaway, Jill Scott, Stevie Wonder. ..and I also liked Disney Channel songs. High School Musical? That’s me.”

As he listens, he picks out details like intonation, timbre and vibrato, figuring out what makes one singer different from another.

“I’m going to try to copy every little thing and make sure I pay close attention.”

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The singer was surrounded by music since childhood

By the age of 16, he was chosen to lead worship in his local church, in three meetings every week, for two years. The experience changed him forever.

“It taught me how to deal with anxiety, but it also helped me realize that performance is not about me.

“In the church, it’s like, ‘We came to connect with something bigger than ourselves’. So if I’m the vessel for that, I have to be completely free of any kind of money or nerves. That’s what I’m still keeping. me now.”

Enjoy jazz

His first exposure to jazz came in high school, where he performed “modern, fusion-y stuff” with a jazz band, but he focused on gospel until he enrolled in college. .

Even then, he chose SUNY Purchase’s prestigious jazz program, more for its proximity to home than the opportunity to study with jazz masters like Pasquale Grasso and drummer Kenny Washington (who both featured on his first album).

“I remember the first day, I was very confused and felt left out,” he said, “but it ended up being the best thing for me.”

When his friends introduced him to Billie Holliday and Sarah Vaughan, he was “observed,” using the same approach to jazz that he had sampled on Disney albums as a child.

“I was like, I’ve never heard of these women before.

Encouraged by his professors, he won the famous jazz competition of Sarah Vaughan in 2019, but his last debut at the Newport Jazz Festival was suddenly dropped when he was affected by the disease.

But, his big break came on Facebook.

Asked to record a “thank you” video for the donors who funded his scholarship, he filmed himself singing Take Love Easy by Ella Fitzgerald, along with one of his professors.

The next morning, the video had 4,000 views. Four days later, it grew to a million, with Tony-Award-winner Audra McDonald among those who praised his performance.

Using the opportunity, Joy set up a GoFundMe page, raising $8,000 (£6,500) to fund her first album.

Recorded over two days and released by British label Whirlwind Recordings, the self-titled LP won rave reviews for its clever collection of jazz standards, which were recalled in back to the golden age of voice translators of the 1930-60s.

“I really wanted to focus on songs that no one else had done, or that were rare and that I could do myself,” said the singer, who borrowed her approach from Cécile McLorin Salvant. (“He has an amazing repertoire. The songs are so random but when he sings them, they all make sense.”)

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The singer is planning a vacation with his entire family for the end of 2023

But looking at the album, Joy realized that he has relied too much on one aspect of his musical personality.

“Most of the songs (in my set) were sad, so I wanted a song about love, not too bad.”

He stated that Can’t Get Out Of This Mood, previously recorded by Frank Sinatra and Nina Simone, “is about the feelings you get when you’re in love”.

“It was so good and inspiring. I was like, ‘We can bring this into the set to break all the misery!'”

That became the centerpiece of his Grammy-winning second album, Linger A While; along with Guess Who’ I Water As As – the story of an unfaithful partner, delivered with nail-biting drama.

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Like his debut, Joy financed the recording himself before licensing it to the famous jazz label Verve Recordings – proof that his scholarship of jazz greats is more than their music.

“I watched a lot of documentaries with my mother about the use of people in music, the background in the lives of artists and the management of these business relationships,” he admitted.

The result of independence is smart: after the Grammys, the value of bidding for his third album will be strong. But finding the beauty of the “greatest night of music”, he is wary of fame.

“I saw a lot of celebrities I saw online and I was like, ‘Wow, you’re real’. But at the same time, I don’t want to be in their shoes.

“Look at it and put it on a pedestal? It seems difficult.

“Now I’m like, ‘I’m cool, I’m cool. I’m going to go home, I’m going to ride the subway, I’m going to walk the streets and just be normal.’

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