“Jazzmeia has one of the best voices I’ve heard in over 40 years” – Jon Hendricks
“My heart skipped a beat… I didn’t know what to do. I was just kind of screaming for days.” These are the words of JAZZMEIA HORN, arguably the most exciting new vocalist in jazz right now. She isn’t recollecting a nerve-shredding nightmare or reliving a traumatic experience that changed her life but is explaining how she felt when her producer, Chris Dunn, at Concord Records, told her that they were going to release her debut album, ‘A Social Call,’ on the re-launched Prestige imprint, one of the leading modern jazz labels of the 1950s and ’60s. “I thought about Miles Davis and John Coltrane,” continues ‘Jazz’ (as she’s known to her friends and familiars), “who were both artists on Prestige. It was super-heavy thing being on Prestige so I didn’t know how to carry myself…it was very exciting.”
Just 26-years-old, Dallas-born Jazzmeia Horn shows an astonishing maturity on ‘A Social Call,’ channelling the spirit of classic horn-like vocalists like Sarah Vaughan (her idol) and Betty Carter but fusing those influences with her own contemporary style and sensibility to arrive at something that is simultaneously traditional and modern. She succeeds in marrying virtuosic skill with a soulful sensitivity, achieving a perfect union of technique and deep feeling. Her repertoire on the album ranges from straight-ahead swingers (‘Tight’ and ‘I Remember You’) and luminous ballads (‘The Peacocks’) to sanctified gospel-inflected soul-jazz numbers (‘Moanin” and a medley that includes ‘Wade In The Water’) to classic ’70s R&B songs – the latter are represented by a wonderful take on the Stylistics’ Thom Bell and Linda Creed-written ‘People Make The World Go Round,’ and Rose Royce’s Norman Whitfield-penned ‘I’m Going Down’ (which was also a ’90s hit for Mary J Blige). What unites her disparate material is her supple, athletic voice combined with her unique storytelling abilities.
Accompanying Jazzmeia is an ace group of musicians, including bassist Ben Williams, pianist Victor Gould, drummer Jerome Jennings, and saxophonist, Stacy Dillard. Together, they make a beautiful and inspiring noise. The singer’s deal with Concord (Prestige’s parent company) was a direct result of her winning the 2015 Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition – in fact, it was part of the prize, along with a cheque for $25,000.
Two years on, and Jazzmeia Horn – who balances a music career with looking after her two young children – is beginning to make some noise internationally, thanks to her sensational debut album. The British public have a chance to see her in person in November when she will perform at Ronnie Scott’s as part of the EFG London Jazz Festival. Here, she talks at length on a range of subjects with SJF’s Charles Waring…
Your debut album, ‘Social Call,’ has just been released. What’s the response been like so far?
It’s been really, really, really beautiful. We’ve got good responses all around, and some of the most endearing ones have come from the average person who enjoys music. A lot of people have said to me that the album is very timely and a lot of the elders feel like the music is in good hands. A lot of the younger people, people my age, said I didn’t like jazz before I heard your album. I didn’t understand it, it was too intellectual, but you make it so that everybody can understand it. So I am really elated. I didn’t really realise it was going to bring together the old school and the new school, the older and the newer generation of people together, and that’s exactly what has happened. It’s so exciting. A lot of the critics in the really big newspapers here, like in the New York Times, The New Yorker, and the New York Amsterdam News, have all really had wonderful things to say. My publicist sent me a quote sheet about two days ago and there were probably thirty quotes. I didn’t think that this was what was going to happen and I’m still trying to take it all in.
What were your hopes and ambitions for the album, then, if you weren’t expecting this sort of adulation?
I was hoping that the younger generation would kind of wake up and smell the coffee and the same thing with the older generation of people. I didn’t think that was going to happen but that was definitely my hope. It really was just a dream. I thought, what if I could really appeal to both sides and bring them together. I didn’t necessarily think that problems were going to be solved or anything like that, but it definitely has brought us together and … the rest is history! (Laughs).
Do you think that there’s a division between the old school and the new school in jazz?
Yes, absolutely. I definitely know that. I’ve even heard a lot of my peers and colleagues when I was in college before I was married with children, say, “oh man, oh, they ain’t got it, they can’t phrase that anymore, they’re too old, nobody comes up in jam sessions and nobody cares about anything anymore.” I would hear things like that and then I have a different way of living and a different way of singing and a different way of feeling than a lot of the younger generation that are my counterparts. I gel with both sides, I’m kind of in between. So for me, I also got a chance and opportunity to hear the elders speak and when they speak, they say things like “oh, you guys don’t listen, you’re hard-headed” and they’d say things that are true but not understanding that they could learn from us. And I think that we forget that we could learn from them because they’ve seen and done so many things in life that we haven’t experienced or haven’t had the opportunity to experience yet. And then vice versa. We have so much that we can teach them like, for example, how to create a Facebook page or advertise on a Twitter account. There’s still a lot we can learn from each other, but there’s a huge gap, but I’m really excited about what ‘A Social Call’ is doing. I don’t want to jinx it but ‘A Social Call’ has made the generations merge.
How did it feel to be in the studio recording your first LP?
I was definitely excited but I was very nervous, too, because that was the first time that all of the musicians in the band had played together. I had played with each one individually before but it was the first time that we had all come together and played music.
What was your co-producer, Chris Dunn, like to work with?
He was great. He had great energy. Everything was “is this is how you like it, do you want it this way?” And then if there were moments that he felt that needed to be redone, he didn’t overrun it with his own interpretation or didn’t make me feel my ideas weren’t worth time. He never made me feel uncomfortable. The music industry can be difficult for a woman. Men sometimes can make women feel a certain way because of the persona that they have or the way they carry themselves. Sometimes they don’t even notice that they’re doing it, but it’s intuitive and becomes part of their being. There was none of that with Chris or any of the musicians on the album. The producer, the musicians, and the engineers were all like, “hey, you’re the boss lady, let us know what you need is to do.” It was just complete support. So it made it much easier.
How did you get to sign with Concord initially?
It was at the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. It’s not a vocal competition but a competition where every year they choose a different instrument. In 2015 it just so happened that the instrument was voice. There were eleven finalists from around the world and they narrowed it down to three winners but the first got $25,000 and a recording contract with Concord. So I won that competition and that’s how I got the record deal.
Who were the judges?
Dee Dee Bridgewater, Al Jarreau – God bless his soul – Patti Austin, Luciana Souza, and Freddy Cole. And the host was Herbie Hancock and there was an award being given to Quincy Jones, so there were jazz celebrities all over the place.
And what did you sing?
I did two performances. We had to do a Monk piece and I did ‘Evidence’ with ‘Four In One.’ So I had the piano player play ‘Evidence’ and then I sang ‘Four In One’ because it has very similar chord changes. So I just created an arrangement of merging the two songs that Monk wrote, and I think that’s what helped me to win because it was so daring. All the other competitors chose the easier songs, you know like ‘Ruby, My Dear.’ None of Monk’s tunes are easy but they were easier than ‘Four In One…that was pretty hard (laughs).
You certainly set yourself a challenge with that one, didn’t you?
Yeah, but on purpose. I thought, “I must win this competition.”
And what was it like to win?
I didn’t actually get a chance to think about it as I had so many bills to pay and I had a new baby coming and I also had a one-year-old. I was really thinking about how the competition, if I were to win, would better my life and my child’s life. So I treated it like a gig instead of a competition and I was able to completely be myself, which worked out. I knew it was a huge risk but I was willing to take it because I needed to pay my rent. I thought: Let me just do what I know how to do. I can sing, this is what I was born to do. I was born to sing jazz, let me do this and try to do something that is totally outside of my comfort zone but which is going to win me this competition.
You were pregnant at the time you were recording your album…How did that affect the recording process?
It didn’t really bother me much because actually my first child was almost born on stage. I performed up until I had the baby with the first and second pregnancies. In the studio I sat down mostly when I felt like I couldn’t stand anymore and it wasn’t too much strain on my body because it was what I was used to doing. It was really simple. Actually, the children gave me much more creative ideas in terms of improvisation and arranging. I was able to get out of a box that I had been in previously. Before I had children, my thinking on my singing, scatting and storytelling was one-way but after I became a mother, it completely changed everything. So in the studio when I was recording my album, I was thinking about the world as a mother and as an artist, musician and a woman of many hats, really, and how that would look like and what it would be like for the children – and not just my children, but children in general. You just have a different perspective. So It changed my perspective and I was able to really get the story, get the gist, and give my own interpretation and understanding of the story, which became even more powerful because I was able to speak it and tell it to the world better than I was able to do before. So it was definitely a blessing.
What influenced your choice of material?
Before I won the competition, I thought the album had to be recorded like ASAP so when I went in as a finalist I had already decided on what songs I was going to record for the album. This was actually before the songs were recorded. I already had a concept in mind and had decided what musicians I wanted to use. Everything except for the producer and the studio, I already knew. I even knew what the album cover was going to look like. It was like I had overdone it but approaching that way turned out perfect because I kind of got a chance to really work the tunes and spend more time on them instead of it being a rushed situation. I live everything that I sing about and only try to sing what I’m living about. If it’s someone else’s project, I’ll be a side man or side woman, but still interpret those songs as if I’m living the story. So storytelling is really important to me. I can really tell a story with these tunes. All of the songs on ‘A Social Call’ speak to me. It was pretty easy.
Is there a theme that ties all the songs together?
Love. The entire album is a big love fest (laughs). Love for society, love for life, love for the children, love for the Earth, love for music, love for everything that I’m passionate about, which is all of the above. You know when you love yourself, you have enough love to give someone else and you love people and you love the Earth, the planet that you live on. You want to save it so you speak out about things that are bothering you and the people. All those things bother me.
You cover the Stylistics’ early ’70s hit, ‘People Make The World Go Round.’ Do you remember how you first came across that song?
I was riding in the car with my grandmother. She had a really small red car and I used to sit in the middle of the backseat and always looked at the radio station and it was being played. She was a nanny and worked for two different families. Sometimes she would take me to work with her, like in the summer when I was out of school. I remember her always coming home and taking her shoes off and she would say rub grandma’s hands or rub grandma’s feet for me. That song came on one day and she started crying but she was trying to make sure that I didn’t see, that I didn’t notice that she was crying, and I did. So I listened to the song and was trying really to understand what the tune meant but it wasn’t until I was out of junior high school that I really understood what she was going through as a nanny, that type of labour and not being able to be around her children all the time and grandchildren in the way that she wanted to be because she had another obligation. And that song speaks about that.
You bring a new dimension to it because you begin your version with a spoken narrative about the state of the world.
That’s what I mean when I say I like to tell a story because I have a different voice, and it’s a different timeframe, so it has to be a little bit different, it can’t be completely the same.
Do you feel that for you, personally, jazz has to reflect contemporary life and that’s why you’ve referenced many of the issues that affect us all?
I’m an expression of life, of what I’m going through, and what I’ve been through in the 21st-century and I don’t know how else to be. This is the only way I know how to be.
Some singers shy away from making the social and political commentary but you don’t, do you?
As long as I’m not offending anyone, I don’t see why music shouldn’t be able to speak out about certain things. I’m not putting anyone down, I’m not judging anyone, I’m just hurt and a lot of people are hurting and I’m not just speaking about black American people and even though I am a black American – whatever that means (laughs) – everybody’s hurting. There’s so much pain everywhere. At the same time I’m only 26 years old and I have a full life ahead of me and this is how I feel today, in 2017. But tomorrow is a different day. You never know. But I definitely know that my love for people and myself is continuing to grow. So it’s definitely not something that’s going to die.
With a name like Jazzmeia Horn, did it feel like in a way that you were pre-destined to become a jazz singer?
No, when I was a child, I didn’t even like jazz. I wasn’t introduced to it until I was about 13 or 14. I was a sophomore in high school and I was like, oh, what is that? That’s too intellectual, I don’t understand it. But then during my senior year I went to a performing arts high school and had a professor and a voice coach who had given me a compilation of vocalists on it and I heard Sarah Vaughan (pictured above). I fell in love with her and jazz and my socks were really blown away completely. The way she played with time, her tone, and the way she sounded like a classical vocalist but was a jazz vocalist and had this raspy tone at the same time. It made me wonder, who are you? And then her improvisation, her musicianship … she just made me feel like no one else on the planet had made me feel before. And I just followed her to Nat King Cole, Ray Charles, Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. I followed Sarah Vaughan and began her tunes but I decided that I was starting to sound too much like her. She sang ‘Fly Me To The Moon’ and also ‘Tenderly’ and I was like, who else sings those songs? So then I got introduced to Nancy Wilson, and then Bessie Smith…. Just like a slew of vocalists came about from me hearing Sarah. I have her to thank but I really have all of them to thank.
At what point did you start to find your own voice? Because you’ve certainly got your own style.
I felt like I was imitating Sarah too much, this was before I was the winner of the 2013 Sarah Vaughan Competition. I felt like I started to sound like her too much and when you learn anything, like you learn how to write or ride a bike, you learn how the person taught you to learn. You kind of imitate the person who taught you, more so than being yourself. So that’s when I started listening to other tunes. Once I started hearing all these different vocalists, I was like oh, this is just to get me started, I can actually be myself. In church, I started to listen to my voice and what my voice sounded like, because I would sing in church probably three or four times a week. My grandfather was a pastor. I started paying attention to my voice even more and then I actually went to school in New York and on the scene right away started playing with different people, like local musicians, in different bars and venues around New York. I just became Jazzmeia Horn. I became myself by being here in New York and really having time to work on my craft.
What music was the soundtrack to your early life growing up in Dallas in the 1990s?
I was really into Brandy (pictured above). I still love her. My mum used to say, “turn it off! Don’t you want to listen to anything else but Brandy?” I have all her records. There was something so soulful about her voice, I was also listening to Whitney Houston too, who was Brandy’s idol. And I heard a little bit of Nancy Wilson because she’s one of those vocalists who is not in a box, so you can’t say she’s a jazz vocalist or soul or R&B vocalist; she is very eclectic and well-rounded. Then I heard Betty Wright, whom my mother loved, and gospel singers like Yolanda Adams and Shirley Caesar. Also Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Johnnie Taylor, B.B. King, Chuck Berry, the Commodores, Earth Wind & Fire, the Temptations, Luther Vandross, Teddy Pendergrass, and Donny Hathaway. That’s what I grew up with. It was very soulful music and it still resonates with me right now. It’s always there, it was just never jazz. And then I came into my dream and created what’s going on with my voice now…but over time it may change, who knows?
Do you play any instruments as well as being able to sing?
I play Djembe. I took West African dance in high school and college and fell in love with a lot of the different West African traditions from Mali, Senegal, Cote d’Ivoire, and especially Nigeria, Nigeria. I played Djembe very well actually. I used to play drums in church, so I have a nice pocket, a nice groove, but I cannot swing yet: it’s very bouncy and doesn’t feel like the swing that I sing. So I’m really attracted to the drums. I feel like the drummer is the second instrument known to man, the voice is the first. I sing and play the drums a lot when I’m on my own and I go to drum circles in Central Park and Union Square where people make a circle and dance and play drums. It’s one of the things that made me fall in love with New York because any one can join in.
Tell me about the cover and album artwork for your album – what was the concept behind it?
If you go to the inside page (above), you’ll see a picture of me front of the Flat Iron Building (in New York) and you can see the world in my womb. I was pregnant at the time that I was recording and looked at ‘A Social Call’ as one of my babies because while I was nurturing a child in my womb, I was also nurturing the album. The concept would be how would I feed the people, how would I nurture them in the same way that I nurture my child. I embodied being Mother Earth but I didn’t have a chance to put the picture that was on the inside on the cover because that was initially what I wanted but the label was not interested in that. So I just wanted to prove it to the people that I really felt it resonated with my spirit and I also wanted to give them hope – especially a lot of the older people, like my mentors, people like Reggie Workman, Charles Tolliver and Jimmy Owens, who all came to my album release party. (Trumpeter) Jimmy Owens was a huge supporter, even when I was in college. He’d ask me: do you own your licensing? Do you own your publishing? I know you’ve just got a record deal but are you talking to a lawyer and can I send one your way? Even before I started making a name for myself on the scene, he would ask me things like, are you resting? Are you eating right? Are you studying? Are you making time to study and go to jam sessions? He really, really looked out for me. And he was one of the ones who would say, jazz is in good hands with Jazzmeia (laughs). I was so excited just to hear him say that. He’s one of the greats and I’m thrilled to know him and thrilled that the elders are proud of me and proud of the legacy that I’m living on and passing the torch. And I’m not just taking the torch and bringing the light – I’m continuing on, to speak out, and cry out with love about what’s going on. And passing on the love down to other generations. So it’s a birth: birthing a new generation of conscious people.
You seem to have lots of ideas. What can we expect from you in the future and do you have any ideas in the pipeline?
I have 20,000 ideas and that’s probably an understatement (laughs). I have so many. I love children and I want to do something like Sesame Street, a special for children. I also want to write some children’s songs. I’ve actually written a lot and my children have been guinea pigs for the music that I’m writing. And they love the songs. We have a brush your teeth song, an open your eyes song, an I am beautiful song… You know, just words of encouragement. There’s a lot in the can and I’m just working on everything bit by bit, piece by piece, but I’m not going to throw all of my ideas out there. I’m working on my next Prestige album.
Will you be writing more as well?
Yes. The next album will be completely my tunes. So I’m very excited about what’s next. I didn’t want to give it to the people up front. I wanted them to have a chance to get to know me with something that they’re familiar with first before I let myself out and give my whole self away. So that’s what’s coming up.
JAZZMEIA HORN’S DEBUT ALBUM, ‘A SOCIAL CALL,’ IS OUT NOW VIA PRESTIGE