Jazz Vocalist-Pianist Shirley Horn: The Art of the Slow Burn

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By Bradley Bambarger <2019>

Miles Davis was a big fan of Shirley Horn. Beguiled by the less-is-more sense of space and patience on her 1960 debut album, Embers and Ashes, the trumpet superstar insisted that the singer-pianist open for him at New York City’s Village Vanguard, telling the management: “If she don’t play, I ain’t gonna play.” Three decades later, Davis paid her the high compliment of making a rare latter-day appearance as a sideman for her, lacing his horn around Horn on the title track of her 1991 LP You Won’t Forget Me. Repaying his devotion, she recorded a memorial album to Davis after he passed, I Remember Miles, which won her a Grammy Award in 1999.

Devotion was an important trait for Horn. She employed the same drummer, Steve Williams, for 23 years and the same bassist, Charles Ables, for 33. Horn also remained dedicated to her roots in Washington, D.C. Born there in 1934, she passed up a Juilliard School scholarship in favor of Howard University close to home, making her mother happy; instead of heading to the jazz capital of New York City later in pursuit of the big time, she stayed around D.C. to keep close to her siblings and raise her daughter.

Horn’s sense of devotion extended to her way with songs, as she explored phrases for all their resonance, digging especially deep into ballads. In a New York Times obituary after Horn’s death in 2005, critic Ben Ratliff extolled her way of “drawing audiences close with a powerfully confidential, vibrato-less delivery,” adding: “Horn was a unique singer, with one of the slowest deliveries in jazz and a very unusual way of phrasing, putting stress on certain words and letting others slip away. She cherished her repertory, making audiences feel that she was cutting through to the stark truths of songs like ‘Here’s to Life’ and ‘You Won’t Forget Me’.” As a pianist, Horn studied classical music at first, but once she discovered jazz, “Oscar Peterson became my Rachmaninoff,” she said, “and Ahmad Jamal became my Debussy.”

When producer Quincy Jones brought Horn to Mercury Records in the early 1960s, the label wanted to spotlight her solely as a vocalist. “They wanted to turn me into a stand-up singer! But I couldn’t get away from that piano,” she recalled for JazzTimes. “I couldn’t handle anyone playing for me… I’m my best accompanist. I always know where I’m going.” Critic Marc Myers pointed out “her uncanny ability to accompany herself on piano as if two different people were in the studio… It’s hard to think of another female jazz vocalist who could play piano this well and powerfully.” In that way, Horn was a notable influence on such latter-day stars as singer-pianist Diana Krall.

Singling out the inspiration of Horn’s mid-period recordings, critic John Fordham said in The Guardian: “With ‘A Lazy Afternoon’ in particular, she demonstrated her remarkable handling of the slow burn, but also a spare and subtle swing, improvising imagination and a crucial interdependence of her piano playing and singing.” By the time Horn recorded her string of high-profile albums for Verve in the 1980s, such top talents as Joe Henderson, Wynton Marsalis, Branford Marsalis and Toots Thielemans began playing on her sessions. These were albums in which Horn suspended time, challenging listeners but enthralling those who stayed with her.

“Space is a valuable commodity in music,” Horn told Culturekiosque. “Too many musicians rush through everything with too many notes. I need time to take the picture. A ballad should be a ballad. It’s important to understand what the song is saying, and learn how to tell the story. It takes time. I can’t rush it — I really can’t rush it.”

Seven Slow Burns by Shirley Horn: “I Thought About You,” Embers and Ashes; “Since I Fell for You,” Softly; “A Lazy Afternoon,” A Lazy Afternoon; “Lover Man,” Violets for Your Furs; “You Won’t Forget me,” You Won’t Forget Me; “My Funny Valentine,” I Remember Miles.

(Originally published in the January 2019 issue of In Tune magazine.)

Longtime music journalist, from Billboard to Gramophone to DownBeat to Medici.tv, etc. Founder/curator of the Sound It Out jazz concert series in New York City.

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