The Texas-born singer fulfills and surpasses expectations after winning top honor at Thelonious Monk competition in 2015
With an assured maturity and vocal confidence far beyond her years, the young singer Jazzmeia Horn arrives with her debut recording A Social Call, an album that reveals a talent ready to take its place alongside the best headlining jazz vocalists of today. Scheduled for release on May 12, 2017 via Prestige, a division of Concord Music Group, its ten tracks—performed with an all-star acoustic jazz lineup—bristle with a bracing sense of clarity: clarity in Horn’s voice (itself a strong and remarkably supple instrument); clarity in the heady range of vocal legends who have shaped her (from Sarah Vaughan to Rachelle Ferrell); and clarity in the vital message of social uplift and the glowing optimism she conveys through her music.
Horn’s marriage of music and message suffuses the variety of selections on A Social Call: fresh takes of evergreen standards (“East of the Sun (West of the Moon)”, “I Remember You”), hard bop anthems (“Afro-Blue,” “Moanin’”), songs of spiritual intent (“Wade in the Water,” “Lift Every Voice and Song”), a couple of melodies associated with another singer of personal influence, Betty Carter (“Tight,” “Social Call”) and R&B nuggets popularized by the likes of Mary J. Blige and the Stylistics (“I’m Goin’ Down,” “People Make the World Go Round”). Some tunes are woven into medleys with Horn first sermonizing on issues of common concern, giving A Social Call the feel of an intimate, live performance.
With the benefit of Horn’s vocal prowess, A Social Call is an album that satisfyingly combines jazz of the classic, small-group variety—when singers had to step up and carry the same musical weight as any other band member—with more modern flavors of gospel and neo-soul. Horn’s palpable understanding of iconic singers of the 1950s and ’60s makes her the ideal candidate for the historic Prestige label, an imprint that helped introduce many jazz vocalists to the world. Even the name of Horn’s album is drawn from that same time period. “Of course Gigi Gryce’s ‘Social Call’ inspired the title,” says Horn.
“But when you think about it, the word ‘social’ has many definitions—you know, let’s go out or let’s stop and have a drink. What I was thinking about relates to society and a lot of things that are going on right now that are not about love or connection. These are not good times. This album is a few things: it’s a call to social responsibility, to know your role in your community. It’s about being inspired by things that happen in your life and being able to touch others. I want to put that light out there—which is why I called it A Social Call and why this album has to come out, now. This is exactly why I’m here.”
It comes as no surprise that a sincere sense of purpose was instilled in Horn from an early age. Born in Dallas in 1991, she grew up in a tightly knit, church-going family filled with musical talent. It was her grandmother, a jazz-loving pianist whose playing was limited to gospel music by her preacher husband, who gave Horn her name. “That was my father’s mother—Harriet Horn—and I guess she knew I was going to be a musical child.” Asked to name the first tune she can recall singing, Horn recalls without hesitation, “’This Little Light of Mine’! I was 3 years old and my granny was standing at the piano, looking at me, saying, ‘You better open your mouth and sing. You better sing loud. Ar-tic-u-late your words.’ I will never forget—she used to always say that. She passed away when I was 12. But she taught me so much.”
Horn may have started singing as a toddler, but she had to wait until her early teenage years to encounter jazz.
“I went to Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts in Dallas and took this jazz composition class with [longtime music instructor] Roger Boykin there. He would always come out and start scatting and talking about certain singing vocabulary, and in the beginning, I looked at him like he was crazy. I had never heard anything like that before—it was definitely a culture shock. Then he gave me this CD compilation of different singers and musicians. It had Eddie Jefferson, Al Jarreau, George Benson, and others—and I have to admit it was very weird to me and I wasn’t attracted to it at first, not until I heard Sarah Vaughan. And then I fell in love! After that, I tried to mimic everything she did—her intonation, every little flair she did with her voice, everything. I learned how to scat by listening to her, and I really got into it after I listened to John Coltrane and Miles Davis, because they sounded like vocalists though they had a different type of vocabulary.
“When I first started scatting I thought that there was a certain language that you had to maintain. I didn’t know you could have your own style but after a while, I found my little niche in it and it just became me, it became a part of me and I never looked back from that.”
Horn found further inspiration in a variety of singers she likes to call “mentors, the ones that have come and gone and the ones that are still here, especially Rachelle Ferrell. She’s definitely somebody that is mentoring me and she doesn’t even know it. There was a season in my life when every morning and every night before bed I was only listening to one thing—a song she wrote called ‘I Forgive You’ and it’s one of the most beautiful tunes on God’s green earth. It was like a hymnal to me, a song and a message I feel everybody in the universe should know.”
Soon Horn was learning from the music by singers she discovered along the way, like Bobby McFerrin (“most of his performances allow people to be involved musically, not just listening”), Abbey Lincoln (“the lesson I learned from her is always take care of your musicians and they’ll take care of you”), and of course Betty Carter. “I really love her spirit and the energy she gave to people through music, and how she was a teacher to many great musicians, some that I’ve studied with and so in a sense, I feel she’s also mentored me.”
In 2009, Horn moved to New York City, trading the closeness and support of family and friends in Dallas for the rich cultural life and musical legacy of New York City, attending The New School’s jazz and contemporary music program. An intense four years of training, performing and being on the scene followed, when she met many of the musicians who appear on A Social Call. “Victor Gould and I have been playing together a long time—he and I met when I first moved to New York. His sister told me about him. I had another pianist I was singing with and the idea with Victor was to get out of my comfort zone, but that didn’t work because I got so comfortable that I fell more in love with his playing.”
Saxophonist Stacy Dillard was another musician Horn met, “around 2011 when we both started playing at [jazz club] Smalls—what amazed me was that I had no sense of my own ability back then, what I could do, but Stacy was one of the first to respect me not as a singer, but a musician, the musician that I am, and help me see that. Way back then I said to him, ‘Stacy, when I record my album can you please play on it?’ He was like, ‘No doubt. That’s not even a question.’”
Horn’s talent grew and began to garner attention. In 2013, she entered and won a Newark-based contest fittingly named for her initial inspiration—the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Competition. Then in 2015, at a gala concert at the Dolby Center in Los Angeles, she won what is arguably the most coveted award a young jazz musician can claim today—one that would lead to her recording A Social Call—winner of the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition.
“I was excited but I was overwhelmed at the same time; there was a lot going on in my personal life—I had just become a mother—so I didn’t really have a chance to really notice exactly what was going on until a couple of months later. I remember as soon as I got the award, and finished meeting Mr. Herbie Hancock and some of the judges—Patti Austin, Dee Dee Bridgewater—I had to go backstage to feed my baby. That was really the top priority for me. It was crazy time for me.”
A Social Call arrives after more than a year of planning, recording, and post-production, with Horn guiding the process along with Concord producer Chris Dunn. First over the phone and then in the studio, she chose the material and the musicians. “It doesn’t get much better than Ben [Williams] on bass—I’m so glad he was able to do this in the last minute. [Drummer] Jerome Jennings and I, we teach at Jazz at Lincoln Center together; he has different programs he’ll do there and invite me to sing on them. [Trumpeter] Josh Evans I also know from Smalls; he plays with Stacy a lot, and [trombonist] Frank [Lacy] had to be part of this—I know he’s also from Texas, and he has a daughter who’s my age so it’s kind of like talking to a father. He’s really cool, a really genuine guy.”
Horn is particularly proud of “I’m Going Down” and “People Make the World Go Round” because “the energy from the horn section made both of those songs so much fun. It seemed more like a family reunion than a studio recording, to be honest. We had a great time. When there’s no attitude and everyone is willing to put down what it takes, everything just comes off and the message in the music is even more effective.”
There are a number of other musical moments that stand out for Horn, most of which had to do with a surprising ease of execution. “I think from the start of the album, on A Social Call, you can hear how much fun we had in the studio playing together—if you listen to Stacy and me. We did ‘Tight’ in just one take—I was thinking we were going to have to play that one a couple of times. And the chemistry that Jerome and I had in the studio on “The Medley”—we only had to do two takes of that which is hard to believe because it’s the longest track on the album. It came out exactly the way I wanted it to the second time. That was beautiful.”
If there is one track on A Social Call that best captures Horn’s expressive range and her signature sound—the song that is most her, exposed and unadorned—it is arguably her rubato rendition of Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks.” And if there’s one tune that best serves her sense of mission with the music, for Horn it is “The Medley.”
“That’s why it’s called that—it’s just a medley of different things to think about. I think of it more as a meditation because the intro opens up and I mimic sounds of ancient Egypt, then different parts of West Africa, then certain Native American sounds. Then there’s a little bit of Sarah Vaughan operatic vocalizing that goes into ‘Afro Blue’ and into a poem that I wrote called ‘Eye See You’ and finally ‘Wade in the Water.’ So you have a beginning and a middle when you have some tension, and it tells a story with resolution at the end.”
Great story-telling and inspired message-giving, fluid vocals and scat-singing and spirited group performances—A Social Call features all one would hope to hear from a veteran vocalist of longstanding reputation. As such, the album serves as a clarion call, proudly announcing the arrival of a young, confident musical talent with a long history ahead of her, blessed with a name that carries its own destiny.
“My name is Jazzmeia Horn and that is not a mistake,” says Horn. “God does not make mistakes.”
-By Ashley Kahn