“All I need,” Jazzmeia Horn sings – very slowly, articulating each word with a loving precision – “is time”. Given Horn’s relentless schedule of dates – just back from a tour of Brazil, and now just arrived in Amsterdam for a gig at the Concertgebouw and a European tour, not to mention being the mother of two young daughters – the opening line of ‘Time’ from her current album Love and Liberation must have a certain resonance for the singer.
“Oh man, every freakin’ day,” she laughs. “It’s a lot, but once I get on the stage there’s nothing else like it. It’s so blissful creating moments in time – even pushing time and bending time. All of it is beautiful. Then, when you get off the stage, you go back to ‘I need more time’.”
Clifford Brown – his inspiration comes from his intonation and his control of his instrumentJazzmeia Horn
Winner of the 2015 Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition, the Dallas-born, New York City-based vocalist released one of the singularly most powerful debuts of recent times with her 2017 album A Social Call, for which she earned a Grammy nomination.
She’s been on the road honing her craft ever since. Hearing her perform at Ronnie Scott’s as part of last year’s EFG London Jazz Festival, from the way she struck freewheeling scat gold during her thrilling take on Betty Carter’s ‘Tight’, to her immaculate legato and finely nuanced ornamentation in the Jimmy Rowles-Norma Winstone classic ‘The Peacocks (A Timeless Place)’ – the latter an intimate duet with pianist and long-standing musical collaborator Victor Gould – Horn’s never-ending search for the unexpected was a joy to behold.
The singer’s high-wire artistry, incredible time feel, exceptional range and consistently beautiful timbre have drawn comparisons with esteemed musical antecedents such as Carter and Sarah Vaughan, both of whom are undoubtedly huge figures in her musical make-up. But listening to the singer’s phrasing in a blistering, gear-changing account of ‘Willow Weep For Me’ at Ronnie’s, instrumentalists such as Clifford Brown and Roy Hargrove were also irrevocably called to mind as being equally important touchstones.
“Oh, absolutely,” Horn agrees. “There are so many musicians who are inspiring to me and that I idolise because of the way they express themselves in the music, and the way that each one of them brought something special to the music. In my singing I try to give reverence to them, keeping the tradition but also being true to who I am – that’s really important for me and my journey.
“They’ve all inspired me in different ways. For instance, Clifford Brown – his inspiration comes from his intonation and his control of his instrument. My body is my instrument and I aim to have that same type of control. With Sarah Vaughan, her sweetness and sassiness – being able to possess both is what inspires me; and with Betty Carter, her firmness. I get different nutrients, musically, from all of these great musicians who came before me, and it helps me to expand my vocabulary, build my repertoire and my expressiveness.”
Coming from a tightly knit, church-going family, it was the singer’s grandmother who gave Horn her name and set her on her own ineluctable path.
“Sometimes she visits me in my dreams when I feel like I want to give up or I’m too tired, just for inspiration and encouragement,” Horn says. “Before I could actually talk, I remember hearing her play the piano and singing. That was my first musical memory, I was two or three years’ old. I remember her songs and her voice and what she sounded like, and it’s very comforting. All of that is still very potent in my life.
“She sang mainly gospel songs, ‘Draw Me Nearer’, ‘Amazing Grace’, a lot of old Negro spirituals that come from Black American culture that are heard in Baptist and Episcopal churches in the South. There’s a difference between gospel music in the South and gospel music in the North, because the music above the Mason-Dixon Line has a different expression. After the emancipation proclamation when the slaves were freed, they were going up North and that affected the music. The blues came out of the South and not the North, and many people don’t know that. Alabama, Tennessee, Texas, Georgia – the music in all of those states sounds very different from the music up North. And that’s the type of storytelling tradition that my family kept, passed down from generation to generation.”
If there’s one song that best illustrates Horn’s strong sense of storytelling, it’s ‘The Medley’ on A Social Call, which takes the listener on a fascinating journey, drawing in sounds from ancient Egypt and West Africa, as well as Native American sounds, segueing into ‘Afro Blue’ and Horn’s poem ‘Eye See You’, before reaching a resolution with ‘Wade in the Water’, another spiritual that Horn first heard her grandmother sing.
This was the purpose behind the whole album, just be yourself – no matter what that is, or who that is, or how that isJazzmeia Horn
If ‘Time’ deals with the most precious element of human existence, then Love and Liberation album opener ‘Free Your Mind’ beautifully articulates an entire philosophy for life, as Horn explains. “The album is kind of a sequel to A Social Call.That album was almost entirely songs about liberation and a call to awareness. Did you know that this is going on in our society? Let’s talk about it. Love and Liberation is a call to action. Now that you know there’s a lot of stuff going on, it’s time to do something about it. First with yourself, because love is an act of liberation, and liberation is an act of love. The first way that you can do that is freeing your mind.
“I see this with my children, I see this with my fans. They might be Muslim, they may be homosexual, they may be transgender. They say to me, ‘Wow, you’re so free with who you are, it helps me to be free within myself’. That makes me so happy. This was the purpose behind the whole album, just be yourself – no matter what that is, or who that is, or how that is.”
Penned for her daughters, who inspired the song lyrics, Horn refers to another of the album’s self-penned compositions, ‘When I Say’, as her anthem. It’s really a double homage, as its unusual phrasing and metric trickery give a vigorous nod to the aforementioned Carter.
“When I first came on the scene in New York City, musicians gave me a really hard time: ‘You don’t know what key you want to sing in, you don’t know the melody, you don’t know the chord changes, you don’t know how to improvise’. I had to pay my dues. When I rehearsed ‘When I Say’, all of the musicians had trouble with this music. Now you have to get outside of your box and get outside of your masculine world and come into my divine feminine world which I’m choosing to share with you. ‘When I Say’ is the anthem that flips the script: if you don’t count, you’re going to get lost in this music.”
In a lovely touch, Horn has copyrighted the lyrics in her daughters’ names so that they get royalties. “It really is their song,” she notes. “My daughter said to me: ‘Stop on a dime’” – as quoted in the song’s opening line. “I was so amazed, she’s only four, she’s so bossy – it’s a reflection of me.”
This article originally appeared in the December 2019 / January 2020 issue of Jazzwise. Never miss an issue – subscribe today!