On Second LP ‘Love & Liberation,’ Jazzmeia Horn Invokes Big Band Style of Ella & Dinah (ALBUM REVIEW)

Talk about being born to sing. With the name Jazzmeia Horn, could there possibly be any other destiny? At a mere 25 years old, the Dallas-born vocalist and composer received a Grammy nomination for her debut, A Social Call. Fast forward three years later with Love & Liberation and we find Horn’s vocal skills even more finely tuned, her songs filled with personal relevance and social messages, and progressing in improvisation and versatility. Her scat singing here, for example, is veteran-like. This a leap forward as a singer, bandleader, and songwriter, all a result of constant touring since her debut. She claims to be understanding music in a different way.

Horn says about her recent experiences, “We’d experiment, using a trumpet player on a song one time and saxophonist the nest, or sometimes just drums and voice in the beginning of a song, trying out different combinations and ideas, challenging ourselves. This was worth more than gold to me – understanding how to utilize instruments: my voice, my body, the band that I’ve hired.” This band she references are top-shelf players including her regular accompanist, pianist Victor Gould and special guest pianist Sullivan Fortner, tenor saxophonist Stacey Dillard, trumpeter Josh Evans, bassist Ben Williams and drummer/singer Jamison Ross. Chris Dunn, who produced her debut, returns in the same role.

Eight of the dozen are originals, all personal in some way but, according to Horn, relevant to any young person’s journey. There is a wide array of styles within, from pure jazz, to scat, to blues, to contemporary R&B with varying instrumentation ranging from a full band to just one instrument to an a capella duet. They resonate with a powerful sense of African-American identity. Others speak with conviction about being a strong, independent woman. And, surely there are love and relationship songs, not the sappy kind but ones that depict both tenderness and humor. Her dad was proud of the effort saying, “…this music sound like what Ella, or Billie, or Abbey, or Nina would have evolved into.” (C’mon you know their last names, right?)

Horn has been kind enough to provide briefs on each of the songs, which we’ll quickly summarize here. “Free Your Mind” aims for more personal connection, not allowing social media to completely take over. “Time,” is a romantic, sensual contemporary R&B tune, brief and modeled after “that famous Nancy Wilson/Cannonball Adderley album.”  “Out the Window” brings swing, with a great solo for Dillard, as Horn shows off her scat chops. It’s a fun tune about both a man and woman with intentions for another. Horn is consciously invoking the big band style of Dinah Washington and Ella here. “No More,” written by Hubert Laws and Jon Hendricks, recalls her childhood in segregated Dallas, speaking now from pride rather than fear. It’s an independent black woman’s defiant answer to those who would try to put her down.  Accompanied by Sullivan Fortner, who also plays on ‘Searchin,’” “Still Tryin”, and “Reflections of My Heart,” Horn’s instructions were “to sound like Nina Simone meets Ray Charles meets Jazzmeia Horn.”

”When I Say” was written for her daughters, coming from their perspective. It’s filled with tricky start and stop changes, using, as just one example, a 5-bar phrase instead of the usual 6-bar phrase. While it’s intentionally playful, the firmness in the piece owes to Betty Carter. “Legs and Arms” may be the best exposition of Horn’s incredible vocal range, especially in the high register. It’s an intense song, inspired by a stalker who was after her in NYC but instead of taking an angry approach, she turns it into a story of a man in love with the elusive woman who never responds to his advances. It’s more involved than that; just listen closely. “Searchin’,” owing to Sarah Vaughan, proves beyond a doubt that Horn can handle a blistering tempo and scat with the best. It’s stunning.

”Green Eyes,” a soft R&B ballad, is an homage to the writer, Erykah Badu, who attended the same performing arts school in Dallas as Horn. “Still Tryin” is flat out blues with great piano from Fortner. “Only You” began as a dialogue more than a poem and begins with the voices of two lovers, Horn and Jamison Ross, becoming more of a spoken word piece than an a capella duet. Ross joins her again on their gorgeous cover of Rachelle Farrell’s “Reflections of My Heart” with Fortner hitting just the right chords on the piano. She ends with the conventional standard, the Van Heusen/Mercer “I Thought About You” unconventionally, accompanied only by bassist Ben Williams.

Her name was bestowed on her by her jazz-loving, piano-playing grandmother. As referenced previously, she attended Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, a school whose esteemed alumni include Roy Hargrove, Norah Jones, and Badu. In 2009 Horn moved to NYC to enroll in The New School’s jazz and contemporary music program, where she met many of the musicians who play on this album. In 2013, she entered and won a Newark-based contest named for one of her main inspirers – the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition. In 2015 she won the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition, a jazz musician’s most coveted award.

The next coveted award may be coming her way soon. This not only has Grammy-nominated potential; it could clearly win.

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