Samara Joy McLendon, Grammy Award-winning jazz wunderkind, closed out the UCSB Arts & Lectures fall season with her show, “A Joyful Holiday” at The Granada Theater in Santa Barbara on Dec. 8, 2023.
Joy, inspired by Sarah Vaughan and her family of gospel singers, has been singing her whole life. Yet Samara wasn’t serious about singing until college, when the Bronx native studied music at the State University of New York at Purchase. As a junior, Joy won the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, which helped launch her career.
At just 24 years old, Joy has accomplished more than some do in a lifetime. Her 2022 album, “Linger Awhile” took home the Grammy Award for Best Jazz Vocal Album, and Samara herself won Best New Artist.
The Granada Theater was decked out in Christmas finery, and its patrons were equally decorated in shades of red and green. There was an infectious energy in the theater, a combination of excitement to see a Grammy Award-winning artist combined with the good old-fashioned Christmas Spirit. The lights dimmed, and the audience erupted in applause.
Joy stepped out onto the stage in a glittering bronze one-shoulder dress, waving to the rapturous crowd as she began with her cover of Julie London’s “Warm in December.” The song perfectly fit Joy’s crooning lower register, and in her last lines, she changed the lyrics to say, “I’ll keep you warm in December, except we’re in Santa Barbara, California, and it’s 80 degrees in December.”
“Warm in December” is the opening track to her Christmas EP, “A Joyful Holiday,” released in October 2023. The live performance of the song sets the tone for the rest of the performance, with her expert vocal technicality and her playful interactions with the audience.
“Coming from New York City, I’m very glad to be here,” Joy joked, referring to the sunny Santa Barbara weather. The audience laughed along with her, as Samara introduced her next song, a cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me.” Wonder has been an inspiration for Joy since childhood and is a staple on her setlists.
“Twinkle Twinkle Little Me” is a song sung from the perspective of a star on a Christmas tree. Joy sang it as a devastating ballad. Accompanied by only the piano, the instrument and her vocals harmonized together, filling the auditorium. Playing the piano was Shedrick Mitchell, pianist and composer who has worked with artists like Aretha Franklin and Whitney Houston.
Working alongside Mitchell was Charles Haynes on the drums and Eric Wheeler on bass. All three musicians were extremely talented and accompanied her for her next cover, Judy Garland’s “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas.” The song was perfect for Joy’s voice, and she jazzed it up (pun intended) with jaunty scales and arias.
The show was dazzling until this point. In the interlude between songs, Joy did something unexpected. She brought out her family, The McLendon Family singers, to perform with her. Though the McLendon family singers appear on Joy’s Christmas EP, artists typically don’t bring their features on tour with them. But the moment they started singing, it became clear that the audience had stumbled upon something great.
The McLendon Family singers, Joy explained, is a family chorus whose voices blend together seamlessly, and have been her inspiration. They were her family, to be precise. Her father, Antonio McLendon, was the first family member on stage, followed by her cousin Tiera Lovell Rowe (“Lovey” to Joy). Then came her cousin, Tommy Niblack, and her uncle, Laurone “Roni” McLendon, described by Samara as having the “velvety-est” voice in the world.
“‘Velvety-est?’ That isn’t a word, but it is now!” Joy laughed as she welcomed her family on stage. They began with “O Holy Night,” their feature on Joy’s EP. The song was heaven to the ears. The McLendon singers’ powerful voices filled the auditorium, making it sound like a chorus of a thousand. Perhaps the most special part of the song was when the singers and instruments went silent for the last “Divine,” which Joy sang solo, her powerful voice needing no support.
The performance received a standing ovation from the audience despite being just the fourth song in the program. The show continued with a variety of songs featuring various McLendon family members. Joy and Lovey sang a Clarke-sisters-inspired “Hark the Herald Angel Sing,” which turned into a call-and-response style “He is exalted,” led by Tommy. They played Antonio McLendon’s arrangement of “Mary, Did You Know?” with every family member on stage contributing.
Joy continued with a cover of Nat King Cole’s “The Christmas Song,” sung as a duet with Joy and her father, followed by the McLendon family rendition of Donny Hathaway’s “This Christmas.”
Joy sent her family offstage to take a moment with the audience to tell them about the rollercoaster her life has been since graduating college in 2021. She told the story of finding out about her Grammy nominations. Joy was on an Amtrak train going from Washington D.C. to New York when her phone began to ring and buzz incessantly. She saw that she had been nominated for not one, but two Grammy awards. She was shocked and obviously ecstatic. Unfortunately, Joy happened to be in the quiet car of the train and had to suppress her screams before dancing her way through Union Station.
The next song, “Can’t Get Out Of This Mood” by Jimmy McHugh and written by Frank Loesser, encapsulated rollercoaster feelings for her. It’s Joy’s opening track on her sophomore album, “Linger Awhile” and is a beautiful rendition of the classic. She followed it with Betty Carter’s “Tight,” a technically difficult piece that Joy’s cover of is nominated for Best Improvised Jazz Solo in the upcoming Grammy Awards.
Joy brought her father and uncle back onstage to perform her dad’s original song, “Why I Love Christmas Time.” It was the “velvety-est” song yet, a brother’s duet that is a new addition to the Christmas setlist. Joy came back onstage with her cousins to sing “Great Is Our God,” a peek into what Christmas Eve in the McLendon house looks like.
“Singing onstage with my family, there is nothing like it,” Joy said to a roaring crowd. “We take you out with ‘Joy to the World.’”
The McLendon rendition of “Joy to the World” isn’t the traditional carol but a party. Joy encouraged the audience to get up on their feet and sing along, having alternating groups sing different parts of the song and calling audience members to participate. It was interactive and a celebration of Christmas, music and family, making it the perfect closing number.
Jazz in the modern music landscape is often regarded as dead or dying. But the irony is that not only is jazz alive through people and performances (like Joy), but the music itself is living, breathing and evolving on stage. Joy would signal to her cousins to continue singing or tell them when it was time to cut the music. Her dad would play a riff that cued the McLendons to change the melody.
What comes to mind is a scene from 2016’s “La La Land,” where Ryan Gosling explains to Emma Stone what jazz is. He says “Every one of these guys is composing, they’re rearranging, they’re writing. Then they’re playing the melody … it’s conflict and it’s compromise and it’s just and it’s new every time. It’s brand new every night. It’s very, very exciting.”