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Elegantly attired in a patterned blue-and-yellow gown and matching headscarf, a gold ankh dripping from each ear and another from around her left wrist, Jazzmeia Horn stood and delivered at the 2018 Grammy Awards ceremony. Perched atop chunky five-inch heels, the singer wisely stayed in one spot. Yet her performance of Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’,” with lyrics by cherished mentor Jon Hendricks, was anything but sedentary.
Horn’s expressive features registered joy and confidence as she dipped and swayed to the bluesy groove. The fingers of her left hand approximated a saxophone player’s, working imaginary valves on her microphone while she scatted gleefully and owned the name that appeared on the video screen behind her — Jazz Horn. Even as she displayed impressive command of her instrument, the then-26-year-old singer brought an emotional intensity to her performance, as if she were testifying before the congregation of her grandfather’s church in Dallas.
Horn had worked hard for this moment. Her debut release, 2017’s Social Call, had been nominated for Best Jazz Vocal Album, and she was going to take full advantage of the worldwide stage it afforded her. Of course, making such a splash with your first recording begs the question: What do you do for a follow-up? In Horn’s case, that meant getting even more personal with her listeners on the set of mostly original songs that make up her sophomore release, Love and Liberation (Concord).
Unlike Social Call, which comprised her individualistic takes on standards including Betty Carter’s “Tight” and Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks,” the new album presents compositions, lyrics and spoken-word pieces developed from the raw material of Horn’s own experiences. So, there are songs about the romantic obsession of a stalker, the aggressive moves of a not-entirely-repulsive nightclub lothario, and the demands made upon her by her two young daughters. Each is presented with nuance and compassion and more than a hint of the stylistic debt she owes Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan.
“On Social Call, I wanted to start off with something that my audience could understand,” the 28-year-old singer says by phone from her home in New York City in mid-June. “I didn’t want to just give everyone all of me up-front, because it would have been just too much. So, for people who had never heard me before, they can say, ‘Oh, wow, she’s a real jazz singer. She’s actually singing standards.’ And by the time they hear my second album, they’re like, ‘Oh, wow, these sound like standards, too, and that’s probably why she did standards [on her first record] because this is her style of music.’ That was the idea behind it. I wanted to introduce myself to people without giving them all of myself. And then, by the second album, just give them all of me.”
“Me and Jazz definitely talked about it,” says Jamison Ross, 32, who plays drums and sings on Love and Liberation. Like Horn, he had won the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition, was awarded a contract with Concord Records, earned a Grammy nod for his debut recording and found more personal expression on his second release. “When you put out a first record, it’s like an introduction to your story,” he continues. “So there’s glimpses of who you are, but it doesn’t necessarily pull back the complete layer of what you’re all about. The second album — especially for me and Jazz, because we had received so much high acclaim on the first album — what you saw was us being able to be confident in what we wanted to say. Because I don’t think either one of us was holding back [on our first albums], but it takes time to build confidence and affirmation in order to put out exactly what you want to say and how you want to do it.”
“I think for anyone, on the first record, there’s a little bit of naiveté, just about who you are as an artist,” says Ben Williams, 34, who played bass on both of Horn’s recordings. Williams, too, won the Monk Competition and subsequent Concord contract, and has released two albums for the imprint. “I was in the same position, where you go from just being an artist trying to figure things out to having this recording opportunity. When it happens, it all starts moving really fast. It’s like, ‘Oh, wow. I have to do an album now. What am I going to put on it? What is it going to sound like?’ Your whole life sort of leads up to your first record, and you just kind of put your best foot forward. You don’t really have much expectation; you don’t have anything to compare it to, obviously. But the second time around, once you’ve been there, you start digging into what your sound is and your concept sort of develops. I think that’s when you really start discovering things, so you have sort of a clearer idea of exactly what you want to do, conceptually.”
In addition to Williams, Horn brought back most of the crew from her first album for Love and Liberation, including pianist Victor Gould, saxophonist Stacy Dillard and trumpet player Josh Evans; she also folded drummer/vocalist Ross and pianist Sullivan Fortner into the mix. For his part, Williams was unaware that Horn wrote music, let alone had a particular genius for it. “So she brought these original tunes in and I was like, ‘Damn!’” the bassist relates. “Once I discovered that, I was like, ‘OK, you have to play your own music.’ Everybody can’t write. Everybody’s not gifted at writing. And she’s definitely a natural.”
Few people know at the age of 3 what they are going to be doing for the rest of their lives. Jazzmeia Horn is one of them. Once she started singing for the congregation at the Golden Chain Missionary Baptist Church in Dallas, where her grandfather was pastor and her mother and father performed as musicians, she was hooked. “When I was 3,” she says, “they took me out of the kiddie choir and put me in the adult choir, because I was so damn loud.”
But her earliest memory of singing in public was when she subbed for her mother at a funeral service, at the age of 6 or 7. “My mother was sick and they were saying, ‘Well, Jazz can do it,’” she recalls. “I was so nervous, and I didn’t want to. But I got up there and everybody was crying, even my mother, because I sounded just like my mom. They could not believe it.”
Still, Horn’s fate may have been sealed before her birth, when her grandmother bestowed upon her the name Jazzmeia. A piano player with a love for jazz and blues, her father’s mother had been denied opportunities to pursue her dream of being a concert pianist mainly due to the color of her skin. “She told me, ‘Your mother is musical, and my son is musical,’” Horn says. “And [she told my parents], ‘The two of you together are going to have a very musical child.’ She wasn’t wrong. She gave me the name Jazzmeia. That’s honestly my destiny, because of her, and I’m very grateful.”
After two years at a public high school, where she sang with “screamo” bands and exerted her individuality by wearing a mohawk and face paint, Horn transferred to Booker T. Washington School for the Performing and Visual Arts, an institution that boasts alumni such as Roy Hargrove, Norah Jones and Erykah Badu. While she resisted it at first, eventually she fell under the spell of the music for which she was named. Much of this was thanks to her composition teacher, Roger Boykin, who made her a mix CD of jazz vocalists. It was Sarah Vaughan who truly captured her ear. “She was sassy,” Horn explains, “and she had a raspy tone, kinda like myself, but she also played piano, like my grandmother. And she also scats, so all of that was very attractive to me.”
It wasn’t until she began studying at The New School for Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York that Horn discovered Betty Carter, whose coy, playful delivery and creative note choices greatly influenced her. She opened Social Call with Carter’s “Tight,” and original songs such as “When I Say” from Love and Liberation would have sounded right at home in the late singer’s repertoire. Hearing Carter’s music for the first time was revelatory. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God. What is this?’” she says. “What I really appreciate about Betty Carter is that, like myself, she was not just a vocalist, she was a composer. I mean, she could sit down at the piano and play her tunes for you.”
Recognition was not long in coming; Horn received Downbeat Student Music Awards in 2008 and 2009. No less an authority than Jon Hendricks declared she was “one of the best voices I’ve heard in over 40 years” (see sidebar). Still, she didn’t let it go to her head as she maintained a grueling schedule: From 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., she attended classes. After grabbing lunch and an hour or so of study time, she headed to Times Square, where she waitressed at Applebee’s (for about six months) until midnight. Then she’d make the rounds of the jazz clubs — Smalls, Minton’s, Zinc Bar, whichever hosted the jam session on that particular night — where she’d hand out business cards and promotional CDs. She’d get home around 3 a.m., sleep for a few hours and then begin the grind again.
Her perseverance was rewarded. Graduating in 2009, Horn shared stages with the likes of Billy Harper, Delfeayo Marsalis, Mike LeDonne, Peter Bernstein and Vincent Herring. In 2012, she won the Rising Star Award at the first-ever Sarah Vaughan International Vocal Competition; she took first place in 2013. Then, in 2015, she won the Monk Competition, which led to her first recording, the Grammy stage and worldwide recognition. And she continues to reap the dividends of her sweat equity. “That hard work definitely paid off,” she affirms. “I was able to perform at the Grammys. I’ve traveled to every continent except Africa. I’m so grateful, because it could have ended up any other way.”
[caption id="attachment_22555" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Jazzmeia Horn: “I wanted to introduce myself to people without giving them all of myself. And then, by the second album, just give them all of me.” Photo: Emmanuel Afolabi.[/caption]
The wistfully dreamy “Legs and Arms” sounds like an unbearably sad tale of unrequited love, told from the point of view of a hopelessly shy would-be suitor. “Legs and arms are all I look at every day, feet and hands,” Horn sings, accompanied by the completely simpatico piano trio of Gould, Williams and Ross, her emotions underlined in Dillard’s plaintive tenor solo. “Oh, how I wish I were the man of her dreams, although it seems she’s not interested in love.” But, like several of the songs on Love and Liberation, there’s a twist: The song was inspired by a stalker who peeped at Horn in her dorm room at the New School. In a way, writing the piece was a means of gaining control over a scary, frustrating memory, although she does so with tenderness. Up to a point. When she sings, “so I’ll hide behind a rainbow in the sky,” Horn imagines her stalker taking his own life rather than living without her.
"Everything is three-dimensional with me,” the singer says. “I say one thing but I mean several. That’s just part of my personality and it comes out in my songwriting.”
The joyful stop-time romp “When I Say,” further illustrates Horn’s ability to layer meaning. Ostensibly a song about female empowerment and a demand to be put first in a relationship — “Give me your love/Give me your time/What’s good is all mine/I want it all, all of it now/Give it to me, don’t ask how” — the tune actually expresses the point of view of her little daughters, Ma’at and Seshat, clamoring for her attention. She was pregnant with Seshat when she recorded Social Call, and she’s not entirely free of the opposing pull of family and career. As she explains in song notes for the album, “Every time I sing ‘I Thought About You’” — which she does as a duet with bassist Williams, the album’s only standard, concluding the album — “I think about my children when I have to take an airplane or train and leave them behind.”
“We had that discussion in the studio when we were recording the songs,” says Ross, who expressed similar sentiments about being apart from his wife and young daughter on his 2018 release All for One. “And Jazz having her two beautiful kids and being a mother — a powerful, beautiful African-American mother — and then [singing] about it as a vocalist and as an artist, I mean, come on, man, how real do you wanna get?”
Certainly, things get real on the deeply intimate spoken-word piece “Only You,” a poem Horn wrote about the innermost thoughts of lovers, which she performs with Ross. The pair start out in unison, relating the same feelings — “I lie in bed thinking of you/When the night has passed and the morning is new” — but then diverge into separate reveries which are recited in overlapping verses, before joining once again. The piece segues into a lovely duet read of Rachelle Farrell’s “Reflections of My Heart,” Horn and Ross once again trading verses then harmonizing.
Horn sought out Ross after she won the Monk Competition, figuring he would be able to advise her on how to proceed, as he had gone through the same thing a few years earlier. Although he wasn’t on her first record, Horn knew she wanted to utilize all the drummer’s talents on her second. “I was like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna use you to sing and to do poetry and to play drums on my album.’”
“I was actually honored,” Ross says. “Because I don’t call myself a jazz vocalist. So when Jazz, a bona-fide jazz vocalist who I respect, allows me to sing on her record, that makes me really comfortable. It was an amazing affirmation. And that affirmation was sort of where our relationship started to blossom because she believes in what I did. And for a singer of her caliber to think what I’m doing is for real … that’s all we [artists] want. We don’t want accolades. We want somebody to know that we’re telling the truth.”
For Horn, expressing her truth is a crucial aspect of her artistry and at the crux of Love and Liberation. The album, she says, is a call to action, a plea for people to be honest with themselves and learn to love who they are. Intrinsically one to dance to her own beat, Horn relishes the opportunity to share her sense of self with listeners, to an even greater extent, on the new album.
“This gives me such great joy, because now people get to see I’m not just a vocalist,” she says. “I’m a teacher. I’m a mother. I’m a person. I’m a human being. But now you really get to listen to my compositions and see what’s really inside my head, and hear and feel what’s inside my heart. And that’s important as a vocalist, as a storyteller; these are my lyrics, my melodies, my arrangements. This is me. You get to really, really, really experience me. And all my songs are freedom songs. They’re about expressing yourself and being free.” - Bob Weinberg
Featured photo by Emmanual Afolabi.