On the third night of her June run at Jazz Standard in New York City, singer Jazzmeia Horn leapt into her opener, the Betty Carter signature tune “Do Something,” with a fleet, peripatetic scat. As she progressed further into the improvised number, the references zipped by without pause—Wayne Shorter’s “Footprints,” Ann Ronell’s “Willow Weep for Me.”
Tempting as it is to listen to Horn’s rich performances for informed quotes like these, such an exercise would miss the point. Horn is a new breed of jazz singer and composer, thoroughly steeped in tradition yet fully planted in contemporary sounds and messages. She doesn’t sound like anyone else.
“Think of me as a machine, only in this moment,” she said in a recent interview at the Greenwich Village offices of Concord Records, the label for her new album, Love and Liberation, released August 23. “From the time I was born, all the music I’ve heard has gone into a database. When I’m writing my own songs, I’m using that database. That’s why [my music] sounds maybe like pop, maybe jazz, maybe this, maybe that—because it is. All of my experiences are in my music.”
Horn, now 28[SL1] , began accruing musical experiences early, and early on her naturally big voice set her apart. Raised in Dallas, Texas, Horn started singing in gospel choirs at the age of three, and it was in those early church groups that she—and those around her—first realized her gift.
“I was the only toddler singing in the choir with adults [because] I was too loud for the Pee Wee choir. My family said, ‘We can’t hear anybody else’,” Horn recalled. “So I sat in with the adults and I fit there. That was the moment [when I noticed], “Oh, there’s something different about me. I sing with the adults.”
Fast forward to Horn’s teen years, when, already two years into her high school career, she auditioned for and was accepted into the Booker T. Washington High School of the Performing & Visual Arts (the school’s many notable alumni include trumpeter Roy Hargrove and singer-songwriters Erykah Badu and Norah Jones). There, one of her teachers suggested that she listen to a variety of jazz singers and learn to improvise. So she delved into recordings by the likes of Little Jimmy Scott, Chet Baker, Nat King Cole, and Ella Fitzgerald. But when she listened to Sarah Vaughan, something strong took hold in the young musician. “I couldn’t get rid of what her sound did to me,” Horn said. “So I really started to shed Sarah Vaughan and learn her solos.”
Around this time, as Horn learned more about the jazz world, a lightbulb went off. “I saw that you can actually pursue this as a career,” she said. “So that’s when I started to take it really seriously.”
The jazz world responded in kind. In 2008[SL2] Horn received a Downbeat student music award, high school level, when she was still at Booker T. Washington. Two years later, in 2010, by then relocated and matriculated at The New School in New York City, she won another Downbeat student music award, undergraduate level, this time in the Vocal Jazz Soloist category.
Impressive enough—but as honors go, Horn was just getting started. She began to audition “for everything,” she said, just to see what would happen. What happened was a cascade of wins—the Rising Star award in the 2012 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition; the first-place spot in the 2013 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition; another top spot in the 2015 Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Vocals Competition; and the Rising Star award in the Female Vocalist Category in the 2018 Downbeat 2018 Critics’ Poll.
“Once the recognition started happening, I started thinking about my brand and about music as a business,” Horn went on. “New York helped me do that. When I was back home I only thought about the singing—what I would wear to perform, how I would sound. I’m grateful for that because when I moved to New York I already had my stage presence, I already had my style. So the next thing to do was to focus on the business.”
Much of that business would center on the breathtaking success of her 2017 debut album, A Social Call (Prestige). Three weeks after its launch, the album debuted in the top 10 on Billboard[SL3] Jazz, the highest jazz album debut of that week. Later, in November of that year, the album received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album. Then, at the 2018 Grammys pre-show concert, when Horn performed her fearless rendition of “Moanin’,” one of the tunes from the album, she received a standing ovation. Since then, borne aloft on newfound visibility, she’s toured almost constantly.
“The biggest problem with Jazzmeia is that she’s just always gigging,” said Chris Dunn, a 22-year veteran producer at Concord Records, who shepherded both A Social Call and Love and Liberation through to release. “The hardest part is to get her in one place for a little bit of time.”
Dunn was speaking half in jest—an artist like Horn who is still touring an album two years after its release is the kind of problem producers like to have. But he acknowledged that a breakout first album puts additional pressure on the second album, even when the artist is readily available to record it. “You might slide back, instead of taking it to another level,” he explained.
Adding to his concern about the “sophomore jinx” was Horn’s desire to release a second album comprising mostly originals. “I was thinking that these [songs] were going to be terrible,” Dunn laughed. “I mean, how can she sing that well and then write, too? We were just grabbing her audience, so I suggested that we be careful with the originals. I was hoping that she wouldn’t veer too much from what she started [with A Social Call], because I really think she started something. She just said, ‘When you hear them, you’re going to think that they’re jazz standards.’”
Horns originals do sound like jazz standards—but with some twists. For one thing, they feature protagonists who use modern terms to talk about modern realities: insecurity, too little time, unreasonable expectations, boundary violations, and the evergreen Songbook malaise—unrequited love. For Horn, these themes, while universal, are also intensely personal. “The lyrics are always a story of mine,” she said. “I’m never lying.”
Compositionally, too, the tunes reflect Horn’s lived life. In with the blues and the swing and the scats one hears smatterings of the “maybe this, maybe that” from Horn’s musical background—a hybridization that not just anyone can sing, and not just anyone can play.
From working on the first album, “I already knew where she was coming from conceptually,” said Ben Williams, Horn’s bassist for both A Social Call and Love and Liberation. “I knew what the vibe was, and it was something I was very comfortable with because I come from that same ‘jazz and R&B and gospel and hip hop all mixed together’ place.
“But I was pleasantly surprised by how great a composer [Jazzmeia] is,” he went on. “The new single [“When I Say”] stands out—it kinda kicked our ass. It has a catchy single melody, but it’s tricky with these odd number of phrases and measured modulations. We were wondering, How do we play this? That’s a sign of a brilliant writer and composer—when you get into the details and it’s harder than it sounds. All of my favorite composers have that element—Wayne Shorter, Stevie Wonder. You don’t realize how intricate it is until you sit down and try to play it.”
Jamison Ross, who played drums on all of the Love and Liberation tracks, sang on one and contributed spoken word to another. “It was a really big deal that she thought of me as a singer for this album,” he said. “Especially for a singer like her—the epitome of a jazz singer, with the spirit of all the greats in her voice. I do not call myself a jazz singer, so I don’t take it lightly. It was the biggest compliment ever.”
Not so coincidentally, all of these three musicians won their respective Monk competitions and recorded their debut albums with Concord afterwards (Williams’ State of Art in 2011 and Ross’ Jamison in 2015). All of them had won or were nominated for a Grammy Award before the age of 30. And while achieving these milestones so early in their careers gave them a welcome leg up in the industry, it also landed them in career situations that they can share with few musicians of their own age. So their view of jazz is different; as leaders of their generational cohort they not only feel pressure to turn out impressive sophomore albums but to find solid ground in a rapidly changing music industry.
“I think that what Jazzmeia is going to do is to revitalize the [timeless] spirit of the music and let [non-jazz audiences] know that they can listen to this music, too,” Ross said. “Right now the jazz clubs and festivals have built-in fan bases, but there’s no new influx of listeners because we keep offering the same thing in the same spaces….
“So if we [the next generation of jazz artists] want to have people to play in front of, we have to change that. I think that with her vocal ability, her songwriting, and the whole artistic package Jazzmeia can bring this one day to a point where we can all go sit down in front of [events promoter] Live Nation and get millions of dollars for a jazz tour….Our fan base will come to see us, not in a situation that’s tailor-made for jazz, but in a situation that’s tailor-made for the artist and their artistry.”
These are the issues that that Horn and her peers—arguably some of the most traditionally skilled jazz performers of their generation—discuss among themselves. How to honor one’s musical heritage while embracing new creative impulses. What to do with unprecedented access to a global audience. And how to navigate the seeming intractability of some social problems.
Like her jazz predecessors, Horn addresses these issues head-on: On A Social Call she dished out thoughtful commentary with songs like the Stylisitics hit, “People Make The World Go ‘Round,” an early 1970s take-down of materialism and greed, and the medley “Lift Up Your Voice and Sing/Moanin’,” with its telling juxtaposition of the African-American anthem alongside the classic blues tune. Horn’s commentary is no less thoughtful on Love and Liberation.
The first track on the album is “Free Your Mind,” a glittering, straight-ahead swing tune that opens with Horn’s metronome-precise count-off and an a cappella pickup. The tune’s message—“free your mind and let your thoughts expand”—receives reinforcement in trumpeter Josh Evans’ bracing, almost-bop solo. As with all of Horn’s soloists, Evan’s unfettered improvisation carries the song’s message as much as Horn’s lyrics do. (Victor Gould rounds out the rhythm section on piano; Stacy Dillard joins on tenor saxophone.)
“When you listen to [“Free Your Mind”] maybe you’ll think, ‘I can do something different—think differently,” said Horn about her intent in writing the song. “Maybe it will spark something. All the time we hear, ‘buy this, wear this.’ No. Free your mind. I want each person to think how they’re contributing to society.”
Horn herself thinks deeply about how she contributes to society and her place as an African-American woman in it. In discussing her own experiences of bias and discrimination she stays clear of confrontation, she says—but she does not back away from the discussion.
She recalled that on a recent trip to China—a country that historically has had little exposure to the African diaspora—everywhere she went people took photos of her. “As a black person, it’s like that for me everywhere I go,” Horn admitted. “People look at me like, ‘Why are you in this neighborhood or in this grocery store or on this plane?’ They look at me like I don’t belong, no matter where I am.
“Trying to talk about this with my audience is not very easy because people think that as a jazz singer, people love me all over the world. But not everybody likes jazz music, and not everybody knows I’m a jazz singer. [Also], my audience is not coming to my show to hear this…they’re coming to be uplifted and healed, and my mission is to uplift and heal them. However, my platform is also a place where I can heal myself, and that is my reality. So there has to be a balance.”
On September 9, after a balance-restoring break from touring in August, Horn will kick off the new album with a concert at (le) poisson rouge, a high-tech, eclectic cabaret space in New York City that’s hosted performers as disparate as rock icon Iggy Pop, author Salman Rushdie, opera star Anna Netrebko, and jazz pianist Brad Mehldau. Then, with the album launched and a new tour underway, Horn will turn her sights to the next album.
Already Horn is writing music for this album—no surprise to those who know her, who suggest that she might already have it all planned out. When asked about these plans, Horn offers the cut, “Out the Window,” from Love and Liberation, as a preview of what’s to come—a fast-clip swing tune featuring stacked horns, cymbal rides, and classic changes. “I’d like to work with a big band,” said Horn with a smile. “So I’m thinking about it.”
She’s also planning to publish a book of poetry soon after the album drops, maybe before the holidays or in early 2020. “I have a publishing company,” she said. “So right now I’m just looking for distribution. I love poetry, and I have so many poems that are not published and songs that are not recorded.”
She keeps her jottings for these poems and songs in a notebook that she carries everywhere. It’s curious to think that in that small notebook might lie one path to the future of modern jazz. But Horn sums it up her own way. “I want to encourage people to be open,” she said. “Because my approach to [music] is something you have never heard. It’s going to sound like a standard, but it’s not. It’s music that takes the torch and carries it forward.”
(Reprinted from September 2019 issue of Downbeat magazine)