When Samara Joy spoke to the Globe last month, the singer had not yet finalized her set list for “A Joyful Holiday,” her show coming to Arlington’s Regent Theatre on Dec. 22. But don’t expect some throwback to Perry Como and Bing Crosby TV Christmas specials.
Yes, you can expect to hear the beloved 19th-century carol “O Holy Night” and the familiar Crosby-era favorite “Warm in December.” (The latter will be released as a single Nov. 18 and the former on Dec. 2.) And along with pop, like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Me” (done previously by Stevie Wonder and by the Supremes), Joy will draw on her church-music background for various hymns. At 23, Joy is already blazing a singular path through the well-trod ground of standard jazz vocal repertoire — and that includes Christmas music.
Joy’s family has an extensive musical background, including several singers on the “O Holy Night” single who will be joining her for the show — her father, Antonio McLendon, her uncle Laurone McLendon, and cousins Tiera Lovel Rowe and Alana Alexander. Her grandfather, gospel singer Goldwire McLendon, now 92, who sings a solo on “O Holy Night,” will join the band in Philadelphia. Her band in Arlington will be rounded out by keyboardist Shedrick Mitchell, bassist Eric Wheeler, and drummer Charles Haynes.
Joy has been on the ascent since winning the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition at 19. An independently released self-titled CD followed, and then, in September, “Linger Awhile,” her debut with major label Verve. Her trip has included prestigious gigs at the Apollo Theater, the Monterey and Newport festivals, and a couple of “Today” show appearances.
At a sold-out show at Boston’s Scullers Jazz Club in September, Joy started with an upbeat and apt “This Is the Moment,” known mostly to jazz aficionados (if at all) from a version by trumpeter Kenny Dorham, on his only vocal album. The set included familiar standards (“‘Round Midnight,” “April in Paris”) as well as lesser-known songs, including “Worry Now Later” (a lyric setting of Thelonious Monk’s “San Francisco Holiday” by songwriter Margo Guryan), and Joy’s own “vocalese” lyric setting of a solo by trumpeter Fats Navarro, “Nostalgia (The Day I Knew).”
In the standards and not-so-standards alike, Joy established not only her musical acumen — delivered with a warm, capacious vocal instrument, breathtaking technique, and unmannered charm — but also a singular point of view, informed by tradition but not bound by it.
“I was immediately blown away by her talent,” says veteran producer Matt Pierson, a judge at the Vaughan competition and, now, Joy’s manager. “She was very young, still a student at SUNY Purchase, but it was clear that she was a generational talent.”
The Bronx-born Joy did not pursue jazz seriously until she got to college. But at SUNY she found herself in a hothouse of talent — fellow students who were deeply into jazz, and teachers such as drummer Kenny Washington and trumpeter John Faddis.
“I was never exposed to this style of singing,” she says over Zoom from a tour stop in Toulouse, France. At SUNY, she found “my classmates are so into this and they’re so passionate about it, and I’m from New York and I don’t even know anything about this music!”
Intense listening and intense study followed. She originally wrote her “Nostalgia” vocalese as an exercise for Faddis. She discovered “This Is the Moment” through classmates. She found “Worry Now Later” when researching a Thelonious Monk project. “I was, like, I don’t want to do a ‘Carmen Sings Monk’ tribute, as great as that album is. You know, that’s normally what happens.”
At every turn, it seems, Joy, as a young, celebrated virtuoso, has been able to avoid “what normally happens.”
Her early models were the giants: Vaughan, Carmen McRae (of the Monk album), Ella Fitzgerald, Betty Carter. But her intention has been to draw inspiration and insight from each, without being a copyist.
“It was tough toward the beginning, because all I wanted to do was copy,” Joy says, laughing. “When you have a performance that inspires you and it’s like, ‘I love the way Carmen does this, or Ella does this,’ and you think, ‘OK, now what do I have to say with this that’s my own, and how do I do that?’ ”
Inspired by a Fitzgerald version of “Misty,” for example, and working with pianist Ben Paterson, Joy added a wordless scale to the introduction.
“That’s a whole tone scale,” Pierson points out, “which is this open-sounding, spacey kind of vibe. She’s singing ‘I get misty,’ which is about crying, basically. But it puts you in a mood that says, ‘Not only that, I kind of feel like I’m in this other world.’ “
It’s the kind of choice that helps Joy put her own stamp on familiar material and make it her own.
Joy says these days she’s searching for inspiration in opera and all kinds of instrumental music. For instance, her original inspiration for “Sweet Pumpkin,” from the new album, was a recording by trumpeter Blue Mitchell. It wasn’t until later that she discovered the Gloria Lynne vocal.
“At the moment I am having fun not only with standards,” Joy says, “but also with compositions by jazz musicians, like [Abbey Lincoln’s] ‘Straight Ahead.’ I don’t think it’s a standard, but it’s still an impactful composition, and it tells a different kind of story outside of what standards are normally about.”
SAMARA JOY: A JOYFUL HOLIDAY
At the Regent Theatre, Arlington. Dec. 22 at 7:30 p.m. $30-$60. regenttheatre.com, 781-646-4849
Jon Garelick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.