By Danny R. Johnson – Jazz and Pop Music Critic
NEW YORK, NY – “Before Ella and Sarah you had to sing the melody straight. They opened it for others to follow individual styles of their own.” – Betty Carter (1929-1998).
Betty Carter was one of the most celebrated female vocalists and composers of the 20th Century, and she was on to something when she made the above statement in a 1974 interview. Singers from jazz who have captured and enraptured the general audience are few. Among the men might be numbered Louis Armstrong and Fats Waller; among the women might be Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and perhaps, Peggy Lee. And as we fast forward to 2017, a number of female vocalists have graced the jazz world such as Diana Krall, Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, and Dee Dee Bridgewater.
Alas, now enters a newcomer to the jazz scene who goes by the name of Jazzmeia Horn, a native of Dallas, Texas, and debuts with a soon to be released album on May 12, 2017, “A Social Call,” on Concord Record’s Prestige label. Almost inevitably, the characteristics of Horn’s unique and distinctive singing and arrangements of melodies on this album points to a strikingly different approach to song interpretation from that chosen by her predecessors and peers.
The release of “A Social Call” will surely be one album that showcases and formally establishes Horn as a break-through star. Not only does she do only familiar songs, but Horn interprets such classics as “Tight,” “East of the Sun (And West of the Moon),” “Up Above My Head,” and “People Make The World Go Round,” she sings them in the conventionally swinging fashion, utilizing such time-honored as, on Betty Carter’s “Tight,” changing keys between choruses, hardly a harmolodic device, but brilliantly smart.
On James Weldon’s Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice And Sing,” a tune with a somewhat rudimentary lyric that usually done with a strong rhythmic sense, Horn does just the reverse, takes away the time and sings more ad-lib in order to make the words sound more tender than ever before. Yet even without electronics and radical arrangements that revamp well-known tunes to the point where they sound like original compositions. Horn sounds terrific, a rare young artist who credits Sarah Vaughan, Betty Carter, and Nina Simone, as her spiritual mentors and inspiration.
In a telephone interview, Horn shared her vision of “A Social Call”: “The word ‘social’ is dropped every second from our lips without us even contemplating what it means—you know, let’s go together tonight or let’s go to church. When I think of the word, ‘social’, I am relating the word to what’s going on around us now – in real time. Like Marvin Gaye’s 1960s classic, ‘What’s Going On,’ I’m looking at what’s happening socially right now, which is not necessarily just about love or connection.”
Horn went on to reiterate what she sees as the challenges of our time and of what it means to be an artist in the 21st Century: “These are challenging times we’re living right now. People are dying every day, people are starving for knowledge and understanding of what’s happening with us as human beings. “A Social Call” is just a small step as an artist I try to address some of these concerns, but in a hip and unorthodox rhythmically way – which is why I called it ‘A Social Call,’ and why this album has to come out, now.”
According to a press release issued by Prestige Records, “…in 2009, Horn moved to New York City, trading the closeness and support of family and friends in Dallas for the rich cultural life and musical legacy of New York City, attending The New School’s jazz and contemporary music program. An intense four years of training, performing and being on the scene followed, when she met many of the musicians who appear on “A Social Call.” “Victor Gould and I have been playing together a long time—he and I met when I first moved to New York. His sister told me about him. I had another pianist I was singing with and the idea with Victor was to get out of my comfort zone, but that didn’t work because I got so comfortable that I fell more in love with his playing.”
Saxophonist Stacy Dillard was another musician Horn met, “around 2011 when we both started playing at [jazz club] Smalls—what amazed me was that I had no sense of my own ability back then, what I could do, but Stacy was one of the first to respect me not as a singer, but a musician, the musician that I am, and help me see that. Way back then I said to him, ‘Stacy, when I record my album can you please play on it?’ He was like, ‘No doubt. That’s not even a question.’” Horn’s talent grew and began to garner attention. In 2013, she entered and won a Newark-based contest fittingly named for her initial inspiration—the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition. Then in 2015, at a gala concert at the Dolby Center in Los Angeles, she won what is arguably the most coveted award a young jazz musician can claim today—one that would lead to her recording “A Social Call”—winner of the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition.
The “A Social Call” album was a year-long undertaking collaborated between Horn guiding the process along with Concord producer Chris Dunn, and an impressive and talented group of musicians. Horn stated that “…It doesn’t get much better than Ben [Williams] on bass—I’m so glad he was able to do this in the last minute. [Drummer] Jerome Jennings and I, we teach at Jazz at Lincoln Center together; he has different programs he’ll do there and invite me to sing on them. [Trumpeter] Josh Evans I also know from Smalls; he plays with Stacy a lot, and [trombonist] Frank [Lacy] had to be part of this—I know he’s also from Texas, and he has a daughter who’s my age so it’s kind of like talking to a father. He’s really cool, a really genuine guy.”
One of my favorites on this album is the “Medley: Afro Blue/Eye See You/Wade in the Water,” with arrangements by Mongo Santamaria-Oscar Brown, Jr., and Horn.
The ‘Medley’ could best be summed as the ultimate Africando, which in the West African Wolof language, means “Africa ReUnited.” The wild and ground-breaking arrangements beautifully affirms the musical and historical links between West Indies African roots and the African continent. Horn was able to connect the old Black spirituals with its native African and West Indian roots into a series of Wolof croons with a slinky backing of hard hitting percussion and salsa piano. Horn’s acrobatic vocal textures are as distinctive as thumb prints, and indeed quite astonishing! She is exceptional, molding her declamatory voice to a rocking Cuban groove while enveloped by a smooth brass section and a lustrous piano.
Horn stated in the telephone interview that she wanted to capture the “Spirit of the Motherland” when she and the collaborators created “Medley”: “The arrangement is designed for the audience to think about a medley of thoughts and reflections. As I approached the selection, I derived a deep sense of meditation because the introduction opens up and I mimic sounds of ancient Egypt, parts of West Africa, and distinctive Native American sounds.”
You can’t help but notice there’s a little bit of Sarah Vaughan operatic vocalizing that goes into “Afro Blue,” and into a poem that Horn wrote called “Eye See You”, and concludes with “Wade in the Water.”
All throughout “A Social Call,” Jazzmeia Horn bends notes as though they were shoe leather, and she nails them, especially the higher notes, with deft resolve. At times she grinds a phrase with a serrated cry that recalls Natalie Cole. In coming to terms with the varied music she has conceived, Horn is expanding the playing field.