Shirley Horn

TrackAlbum
Hit The Road JackLight Out Of Darkness
All My TomorrowsYou Won’'t Forget Me
Too Late NowYou Won’'t Forget Me
Here’'s To LifeHere'’s To Life
EstatéHere'’s To Life
A Time For LoveHere'’s To Life
Peel Me A GrapeThe Main Ingredient
My Funny ValentineI Remember Miles
Violets For Your FursViolets For Your Furs
If You Go AwayMay The Music Never End

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Contributor: Bert Wright

When music conversation turns to the great jazz divas, the Holy Trinity of Billie, Ella and Sarah are generally the first names to be advanced, closely followed by Dinah Washington, Carmen McRae, Nina Simone, Nancy Wilson and Peggy Lee. No argument there but it’s not the whole picture and one fine singer who is consistently overlooked is the magnificent Shirley Horn. Maybe it’s because she was so understated, so subtle, so un-divaish, but whatever the reason, no listener who relishes the art of jazz balladry can hold up their heads before gaining an intimate familiarity with the shining musical oeuvre of Shirley Horn.

Perhaps a more significant reason for Horn’s late flowering was down to personal choices. Despite early success and encouragement from many jazz greats, including Miles Davis, who invited her to open for him at the Village Vanguard in Greenwich Village in 1960, she opted to remain close to her home base of Washington to raise her daughter. And though she played and made some fine recordings during this period her career did not really take off until she was in her fifties with her big breakthrough coming in 1987 when she started making records for the prestigious Verve label.

Shirley Horn was born in Washington in 1934. Encouraged by her organist grandmother, she started piano lessons at four years of age. Prodigiously talented, she went on to study piano at Howard University in Washington DC from the age of twelve to eighteen. After graduation, she played piano in local bars, restaurants, and nightclubs, where her piano mastery along with her unique vocals soon impressed some serious players like Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Elvin Jones and Quincy Jones. Horn put together her first trio in 1954. Her early piano influences were Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson and Ahmad Jamal, and moving away from her classical background, Horn later said that “Oscar Peterson became my Rachmaninov, and Ahmad Jamal became my Debussy.”

When living in Cambridge MA in the 1990s, I was lucky enough to hear Shirley Horn perform at the Charles Hotel, a popular MA jazz venue and my memories are of her exquisitely restrained performances where the songs were introduced sotto voce and in the briefest terms. But man, when she started playing, you knew you were in the hands of a first-rank jazz balladeer. Her keyboard artistry sets her apart from the major jazz divas and the empathetic layering of vocals and piano is a marvel of subtlety, mellifluous phrasing and pure technique. At times, the delivery is so languid, you worry that she’s forgotten the words but listen and what you will hear is a singer who inhabits a song like few others; time and again, old chestnuts are revived, reinterpreted and bent to Horn’s will. And she can swing with the best of them as she demonstrates here on Hit The Road Jack.

During the British invasion in the 1960s, many US artists were encouraged to reinvent themselves as popular singers but Shirley Horn was not for turning, insisting that she would not “stoop to conquer” a remark which marks her out as an intelligent, principled and independent artist. She favoured the intimate trio setting and kept the same rhythm section of Charles Ables (bass) and Steve Williams (drums) for twenty five years. Strangely, my favourite album, Here’s To Life (1992), features the lavish string arrangements of Johnny Mandel who won the Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Arrangement Accompanying Vocals for that album and I have included in my top ten selection, in addition to the title track, two other tracks, Estaté written by the Italian composer, Bruno Martino, and A Time For Love which features one of the best trumpet solos you’re ever likely to hear, from Wynton Marsalis.

An earlier Verve album, 1991’s You Won’t Forget Me, featured Miles Davis on his last ever appearance as a sideman and it’s such a lush record, it was damn near impossible to choose the right tracks but I’ve gone with two gems, Too Late Now and All My Tomorrows.

On the lighter side, listen to the supremely witty Peel Me A Grape from 1996’s The Main Ingredient followed by a track from the 1998 album I Remember Miles. I have a playlist comprising only versions of one of the most-recorded songs of all time, Rodgers & Hart’s 1937 classic love song, My Funny Valentine, and Shirley’s version is right up there with Ella Fitzgerald’s and Chet Baker’s.

Closing out my top ten selections, I’ve chosen an ultra-slow live version of the Billie Holiday favourite, Violets For Your Furs from Shirley’s live 1981 album of the same name, and from her final album, 2003’s May The Music Never End, If You Go Away, a version of the Jacques Brel song “Ne me quitte pas”, a real stunner.

Despite being a favourite of musicians and critics, Shirley Horn never enjoyed a level of success and popularity commensurate with her unique and diverse talents but in her many recordings, she left a corpus of jazz balladry that has rarely been equalled. Horn passed away on 20th October 2005, due to complications from diabetes at the relatively young age of 71 but anyways, Here’s to the Life of Shirley Horn.

Shirley Horn discography

Shirley Horn biography (iTunes)

TopperPost #207

1 Comment

  1. John Chamberlain
    Feb 25, 2014

    A great lady. I would, however, have to have “You won’t forget me” accompanied by Miles Davis, in my list.

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