Having covered vocalist Jazzmeia Horn’s previous album, the GRAMMY® nominated Love and Liberation on these pages and witnessed her performances, both live and virtually, where she was typically accompanied by a trio or quartet, this big band effort, Dear Love, represents not only a major departure but a refreshing surprise too. This is only Horn’s third album, and she has already set a high bar for herself, also receiving a GRAMMY nomination for her debut, A Social Call. A winner of the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition and the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition, Jazzmeia Horn is also an NAACP Image Award-winning artist, with a trajectory that is as steep as any current artist. Considering that Horn composed all these pieces and arranged the charts gives even a broader view of her considerable talents.
We have easily been able to glean Horn’s ties to Black culture and her African ancestry in her stage attire and in the socially conscious lyrics that marked her first two albums. As a young mother, she has also sung about the impact her children have had on her life. On Dear Love she continues to address herself, her community, and more than ever, her lover. With her 15-piece Noble Force ensemble, anchored by her rhythm section of pianist Keith Brown, bassist Eric Wheeler, and drummer Anwar Marshall, the album marks one of the first times that a black female vocalist has written and fronted a big band album in its entirety (this having historically always been a male preoccupation) and the addition of strings elevates the album to that of a major orchestral project. We should note that it was this core unit that played most of these tunes on tour and that altoist Bruce Williams played a major role in bringing the large ensemble to life. A decade-long friend, pianist Sullivan Fortner (who plays organ here), is intimately familiar with Horn’s work and that of several other premier female vocalists. He serves as her musical director.
Horn’s foundation for the project came in part by listening to artists such as Booker T, Little Jimmy Scott, Bebop Betty Carter, Frank Wess, Jackie McLean, René McLean, George Coleman J.J. Johnson, and many more pioneering figures. She is not only carrying the torch for these legends but heralding a new era for classic, straight-ahead jazz. Yet, she is no throwback. She is equally inspired by artists such as Erykah Badu and has collaborated with rappers such as Common and Talib Kweli. Thus, hers is a sound that both holds classic qualities and a contemporary edge.
The album is infused with poetry and spoken word through letters of encouragement which we hear in the opening “I Feel You Near,” her voice backed primarily just by Jason Marshall’s baritone sax. “Be Perfect” is a short abrupt statement while “He Could Be Perfect” features her high register flowing voice soaring above the full brassy ensemble and a punchy repetitive riff. She brings a flair and her signature sass to the standard “He’s My Guy” with Keith Loftis soloing on tenor and shows her own purposeful side in her original “Let Us (Take Our Time),” a combination of vocal and spoken word, interspersed with Freddie Hendrix’ trumpet. Inevitably, she covers the classic “Lover Come Back to Me,” released as a single, showcasing her wide vocal range and scat mastery.
She transforms The Beatles’ “Money Can’t Buy Me, Love” into a gorgeous ballad with Horn singing over a bed of horns and strings, mostly smoothly with a spoken-word break, commensurate with the letter format, injecting a few goosebump-inducing “oohs” at the outset and some impossibly high, Memorex-glass-shattering notes for the climax. “NIA” sounds somewhat like a modern-day Billie Holiday in its intriguing, contemplative aura, buoyed by Williams’ alto solo and Brown’s bright piano comping.
The epic “Strive (To Be)” and its vocal prelude give the project some of its most powerful moments as Horn speaks about the advice she received from her grandmother – a personal expose on the roots of her inner motivation. Trumpeter Freddie Hendrix and trombonist Corey Wilcox catch fire in their solos. “Where We Are” is a string-laden, sublime ballad, with a delicate, caressed vocal while the closer “Judah Rise” is a clarion call with Pastor E. J. Robinson narrating, “Do you want to be a leader?” The bonus track “Where Is Freedom?’ is the most buoyant of all, with echoes of Nina Simone in the treatment and spots from bassist Wheeler, trombonist Dion Tucker, and pianist Brown.
The making of the project is being filmed for a documentary that will be broadcast on network television in spring 2022. Jazzmeia also plans to tour the album extensively, with some flagship shows with The Frankfurt Philharmonic Orchestra scheduled for October 2021. This ambitious and exhilarating project that represents some of Jazzmeia Horn’s very best work to date and may just be the one that takes her from nominee to winner at the next Grammy Award ceremony.