Sunday, May 19, 2013

The Great Shirley Horn

Shirley Horn
I've worked with many jazz vocalists over the years. I would be lying if I said I loved every minute of it... However, I believe that there are musical areas that you can't really explore without a vocalist. I learned a lot as a pianist accompanying jazz singers; not only did I gain experience in comping, playing rubato, improvising intros and outros, but I was exposed to a whole range of music that I might never have gotten to know if I had only worked in instrumental situations. There are certain tunes which come up only with vocalists; most jazz students these days don't even know basic tunes like "Alone Together" and "All The Things You Are", let alone tunes like "Skylark" or "What A Difference A Day Makes", or "Estate", etc...In all fairness, I feel like I'm only on the periphery when it comes to jazz vocal repertoire; although I did work with a lot of singers, I never considered myself a "singer's pianist." Indeed, there were many singers who I was clearly not their favorite(meaning I didn't get called back, or didn't keep the gig for as long as I would have wanted), which is cool because honestly, there's no way you can be everybody's favorite. Still, we can grow amidst failure and success, and whether the singer was great or not, or whether I was great or not, accompanying singers is an art unto itself. In some ways, it's becoming a lost art.

Then there are the singers who just comp for themselves. The late, great Shirley Horn was one of those. I was recently listening to a live recording she did called "I Thought About You", which was her first for Verve Records in 1987. (It's a live recording from the Vine Street Bar and Grill in Hollywood.) Her version of "Something Happens To Me", the opener, is exquisite; her swing and phrasing is a perfect encapsulation of jazz singing in less than 4 minutes. I listened to this track many times in a row, and when you listen to her piano comping, you realize that she is the perfect accompanist for herself, and yet, if you didn't know, you would think it was two people!

Here is a live version from a 1990 Bern, Switzerland performance:

Shirley Horn was born in Washington, D.C. in 1934. She took classical piano lessons from the age of 4, and majored in piano and composition at Howard University; although she was accepted at the Juilliard School in New York, she couldn't afford the tuition. Horn worked in D.C. as a pianist fronting a trio, and was discovered in 1960 by Miles Davis. Davis let Horn open for his group at the Village Vanguard. During the 60's, she recorded some great albums for Mercury and Impulse, but never really achieved stardom. Here's a track from "Loads of Love", released in 1963:
Towards the end of the 1960's, Horn became frustrated with the direction of the music business and trends in popular music. She choose to stay in D.C., spend time with her family, and perform mostly in local venues. It wasn't until the 1980's when she made a comeback with touring and recording; in 1987, Horn signed with Verve Records and recorded for them until her death in 2005 from complications due to diabetes. From this period, there are so many classic cuts; my favorite, and probably yours, is "Here's To Life":
If you don't feel some deep emotion after hearing that track, you might be a robot. Or Mitt Romney.

Horn had the same rhythm section for 25 years: Charles Ables on electric bass and Steve Williams on drums. I got to play with Williams a bunch when I lived in D.C.; I believe that Williams, although having a great career and an indeed special musical relationship with Horn, is rather underrated in the drumming world. If you listen to how sensitively Williams plays on these tracks, you can see how special his musicianship is for this kind of situation. Many drummers would have a hard time holding back their "chops" for the sake of such quietude.

I was fortunate to see one of Horn's last performances before her passing; she had an engagement at Au Bar in New York. She was clearly not well, but her magical powers still came out in her music. I think all jazz vocal students should be required to listen to everything Shirley Horn has ever done. Her phrasing, her delivery, her swing, her taste in material, her piano comping, it's all there. Shirley Horn was indeed a treasure.

Here is also a film about Horn's life that might interest you:

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