Jazzmeia Horn is Steeped Tradition, Yet Fully Planted in the Present

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Jazzmeia Horn’s begun writing a follow-up to her recently released album Love And Liberation and also started work on a book of poetry.

(Photo: Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos)

“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, A Social Call (Prestige), which landed in the Top 10 of the Billboard Jazz Albums chart. Later that year, the recording 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’,” she received a standing ovation. Since then, borne aloft on newfound visibility, she has toured almost constantly.

“The biggest problem with Jazzmeia is that she’s just always gigging,” said Chris Dunn, a veteran producer who shepherded both A Social Call and Love And Liberation. “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 debut adds pressure to succeed with the second album, even when the artist is readily available to record it.

Adding to his concern about a sophomore slump was Horn’s desire to release an album of mostly original compositions. “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.’”

Horn’s originals do sound like 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 Great American 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, the swing and the scatting, 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 albums. “I knew what the vibe was, and it was something I was very comfortable with because I come from that same [artistic] place: jazz and r&b and gospel and hip-hop all mixed together.”

Jamison Ross, who played drums on all of the Love And Liberation tracks, sang on one and contributed a spoken-word passage 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 coincidentally, all three of these musicians emerged victorious at the Monk competition and then recorded an acclaimed debut album. Williams won the 2009 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Bass Competition and released State Of Art (Concord) in 2011. Ross won the 2012 Monk drums competition and released Jamison (Concord) in 2015. All of them had won or were nominated for a Grammy before age 30. 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 age. As leaders of their generational cohort, they not only feel pressure to turn out impressive albums but also 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 [the younger 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—the whole artistic package—Jazzmeia can bring us one day to a point where we can all go sit down in front of 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.”

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