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)

These are issues that Horn and her peers 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’ 1972 hit “People Make The World Go Round,” a critique of materialism and greed, and the medley “Lift Every Voice And Sing/Moanin’,” with its telling juxtaposition of the 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, straightahead 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, boppish solo. As with all of Horn’s soloists, Evans’ unfettered improvisation carries the song’s message as much as Horn’s lyrics do.

“When you listen to [‘Free Your Mind’] maybe you’ll think, ‘I can do something different—think differently,’” Horn said 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 and her place in the world as an African-American woman. In discussing her own experiences of bias and discrimination she stays clear of confrontation, she said—but she doesn’t 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 said. “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 Sept. 9, after a balance-restoring break from touring in August, Horn will mark the release of her new album with a concert at (Le) Poisson Rouge, the eclectic cabaret space in New York that’s hosted performers as disparate as punk progenitor Iggy Pop and opera star Anna Netrebko. Then, with the album launched and a new tour underway, Horn will turn her sights to the next album.

She’s started writing songs for that, too—no surprise to those who know her, who suggest that she might already have it all planned out. When asked about the future, Horn offers “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 all of these in a notebook that she carries everywhere. It’s curious to think that in that small volume 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.” DB

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