Album Review: Samara Joy – A Joyful Holiday – Video


Surely one of the most gifted – and, as time may yet reveal – important jazz vocalists of our century, 24-year-old Samara Joy is adept at channelling the greats, most notably Ella. On this six-track mini-album, she follows her illustrious forbear by releasing a Christmas album.

Xmas platters are often cheap cash-ins or malodorous cheese-fests, but not in this case. A Joyful Holiday is a triumph: the playing is perfectly judged, and the singing richly sensuous, honeyed like a cognac supped by the fire.

In a New York Times interview last year, the bassist Christian McBride described Joy’s singing as “full of wisdom” and that’s the key to this record’s success; she sings with a maturity way beyond her tender years. Beautifully produced by Joy regular Matt Pierson, A Joyful Holiday features a similar cast of jazz A-listers (Grasso, Wong, Washington and Fortner) to those on her much-garlanded Linger Awhile album of 2022. This quartet understands the material as well as Joy herself does, and consequently deliver a spot-on backing.

‘Warm In December’ has a joyous zip; a gorgeous reading of ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Me’, featuring just Joy and Fortner, marries the operatic splendour of Sarah Vaughn with a delicious, intimate tenderness; ‘Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas’ is given a contemplative reading that injects intriguing freshness to overly-familiar material; and ‘O Holy Night’ and a live version of ‘The Cristmas Song’, both featuring members of her extended family (including bass-playing dad Antonio) as solo singers and a choir, soar with an almost celestial passion. A new, much-anticipated Samara Joy record is due out next year, but for now, enjoy her astonishing singing. Christmas or not, it’s a true gift to music.

This six-track EP on Verve/UMG brings the breakthrough year of 2023 for Samara Joy to a neat close. In February she won two Grammys, as Best New Artist and Best Jazz Vocal Album for “Linger Awhile”. In July she was Downbeat’s Critics’ Poll’s Rising Star Female Vocalist of the Year and Rising Star Artist of the Year. And just a couple of weeks ago she passed the mighty age of… 24.

The first four tracks do exactly what the press release states so comfortingly. We hear “an extension of her latest album”, recorded at Sear Sound in NYC and with Matt Pierson again as producer. The opener is “Warm in December”, which Julie London sang in 1956. We hear Samara Joy in the impeccable jazz company of pianist classy Sullivan Fortner (Ben Paterson was on the album), with deeply reassuring bass player David Wong, plus more ineffably neat brushwork from drummer Kenny Washington.

On the fourth track, “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” the refined guitar playing of Pasquale Grasso thakes the place of Fortner. Samara Joy does neat little rhythmic switchbacks in the tune by doing all the A sections in 3-4 time but the bridge in 4. And, for the second time on this EP, she ends the song with a high, almost whistle register note which she seems to hold on to forever, and with total control. Certainly this “schooled” side of her jazz artistry is now proved beyond doubt. So what more is there?

The answer comes right away, in the fifth number. Sullivan Fortner shifts to Hammond B3, Samara Joy is joined (from a studio in Philadelphia) by several generations of her family. And even if the press release is too coy to actually mention the word “gospel”, that is where we are going. Gospel music is something deeply important to Samara Joy, who has a huge family heritage in it. In her late teens, she was worship leader in the church several times a week. She is not “just” a jazz singer. As she has told one interviewer: “ 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.”

She sings here with her father Antonio (Tony) McLendon, and the contrast between his melismatic singing and her clear lines is fascinating. The two songs we hear are, first, that extraordinary relic from 1847, “Minuit Chretiens” by Adolphe Adam and Placide Cappeau, better known as “O Holy Night”, and then a second version of Mel Torme’s “The Christmas Song”, recorded live in 2022.

Aretha Franklin once said that, for her, gospel music has more movement, feeling and soul than jazz. Could Samara Joy be about to prove her right? It will be fascinating to find out.

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