Four years ago, around the beginning of June, I was getting ready to travel to Austria to attend a very unique jazz festival. Using the tagline “Jazz on the farm”, Paul Zauner’s yearly Inntöne festival is not only remarkable for its idyllic surroundings, intimate atmosphere and original setting – it’s held on a pig farm on the organizer’s private property – but also because it tends to feature exciting, up and coming musicians who often proceed to swiftly rise through the ranks, sometimes even achieving that ever-elusive goal of jazz superstardom. The most recent case is a man by the name of Gregory Porter, who even has a record out with Paul Zauner’s Blue Brass, and it’s absolutely fantastic and you should get it!
While browsing that year’s line-up, looking for names to interview, one musician immediately caught my eye. With her “catchy” name, colorful garb and natural charisma, Jazzmeia Horn is hard to overlook. Back then, there weren’t many videos of her posted online, which only increased the impact of getting acquainted with her preternatural talent in a live environment. I interviewed her after her performance and we spoke about her life, her views on jazz and her then-upcoming debut album.
Meanwhile, the self-christened Mama Jazz took a few years to focus on her family life and raising her two daughters, but my prediction finally came through this year, when her debut album, A Social Call, received its Grammy nomination. I’d love to take credit as a jazz visionary with a keen eye for talent but really, you didn’t have to be a clairvoyant to know that there were great things in store for this young musician.
With her educated voice, her outspoken nature and her joyful delivery, Jazzmeia Horn is an absolute godsend for a musical genre in constant need of fresh faces. During my interview, more than anything else, I got the impression that the Dallas-born vocalist was someone with a personal mission.
“My music is conscious music,” she said to me. “It’s about being aware of the food that you put in your body, being aware of the community that you’re in and how the environment affects you in the community that you’re in, but in music. ‘Cos that’s what Jazz is, you’re telling a story, you know? And why not speak about the story that’s happening right now? I think the music is definitely important and, especially since my name is Jazzmeia, why not carry on the legacy, right?”
This comment about carrying on the legacy immediately sprang to mind when I first played A Social Call. I’ve recently reviewed Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah’s Centennial Trilogy, where I wrote that it “pays homage to the long history of recorded jazz by demonstrating that the genre is still very much anchored in the reality of the present moment.” A similar statement could be made about Jazzmeia Horn’s record.
While Scott incorporates the present moment into his conceptual approach by the use of hip-hop beats and electronic sounds, Jazzmeia Horn brings forth a sort of quintessential, unchanging “jazz present”, seemingly bent on demonstrating that the spirit of jazz in its original form is as relevant today as it always has been.
The record opens with an instantly addictive rendition of Betty Carter’s “Tight”, where we are introduced almost immediately to an element that will become one of the standouts of the record: Ms. Horn’s superlative scatting. A quintessential aspect of jazz music, Jazzmeia Horn’s scatting is simply at another level, enlivened by the vocalist’s very evident joy when performing this music. Her energy is consistently contagious, which becomes the driving force of an impeccably executed record.
There is a prevailing sense of social-political awareness throughout, even in the “lighter” tunes, which adds to the feeling of relevance so necessary when playing standards.
While the opening track seemed meant to establish the personality of the vocalist, “East of the Sun, West of the Moon” is all about introducing the listener to the stellar band and splendid arrangements that become the foundation on which the vocalist can build her narrative. The relationship between the vocalist and pianist Victor Gould reminded me of Laurence Hobgood’s arrangements for Kurt Elling, no doubt a more than desirable association for any pair of musicians.
There’s equal if not greater chemistry between the vocalist and bass player Ben Williams, who has one of many exceptional moments on “Social Call”, right after the singer taps into her gospel roots with “Up Above My Head.”
The record continues with one of the more socially charged songs in the repertoire, “People Make the World go Round” by the Stylistics. At this point, I’ve got the same slight criticism I had for Esperanza Spaldings’ earlier records: the lack of subtlety in delivering the clearly relevant message. While I always appreciate a singer’s dedication to issues of social importance, the way the message is transmitted is essential. Just like Spalding used to, Horn suffers from a youth-fueled tenency toward melodrama that, in this particular song, translates to an eye-roller of an opening monologue. There’s a right way and a wrong way to make this sort of statement and the major head-scratcher here is that she clearly knows the right way, since she expressed essentially the same sentiment with far more elegance and poignancy in “Eye See You”, part of the record’s final medley.
Still, the rest of the track is superb and more than makes up for the skip-worthy intro with an amazing tour-de-force by the entire band. Trumpeter Josh Evans alongside saxophonist Stacy Dillard and trombonist Frank Lacy practically manage to convey the desired sense of urgency far better than the opening monologue.
The song is followed by another medley combining “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “Moanin’”. In my opinion, this is the highlight of the entire record. The singer’s raw and rapturous delivery on the former is one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard in years. I’m not ashamed to admit that it brought me to tears, which happens surprisingly seldom given the vast amount of music I listen to daily. The outstanding intro is followed up by one of my favorite tunes in the entire jazz catalog, namely Art Blakey’s “Moanin’”.
For as much as I love the song, it’s rare when a vocal version captures the vibe and energy of the original and Horn’s transition from pure unadulterated emotion in the intro to pure attitude in “Moanin’” is perhaps more than anything else about this album a demonstration of her innate understanding of storytelling.
“The Peacocks (A Timeless Place)” delivers a tender, exquisite moment between voice and piano before a fun, if otherwise unspectacular rendition of “I Remember You” leads to another one of the record’s powerful statements: the final medley, consisting of “Afro Blue/ Eye See You/ Wade in the Water”. This atmospheric piece starts off with Horn performing some captivating sound effects over percussion, before transitioning to the intense “Eye See You”, where the singer’s spoken-word succeeds in all the ways the intro of “People” didn’t. “Wade in the Water” is the perfect way to finish this ethereal piece. The song’s impeccable framework and urgent message made me wonder why it wasn’t the closing track. After this powerful statement, “I’m Going Down”, though beautifully delivered, sounds like little more than an afterthought.
Nevertheless, the record has an otherwise powerful sense of narrative cohesion, with carefully selected songs and an exceptional delivery that glides smoothly from one theme to another. But this is just the opening chapter of what will no-doubt be a long, memorable story as Jazzmeia Horn seems poised to craft an enduring legacy and help revitalize the genre. I couldn’t imagine a better ambassador for jazz music in 2018!