Sunday, January 28, 2018

Grammy nominated Jazzmeia Horn Lights Up the Stage at The Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta

Jazzmeia Horn A Social Call Prestige 
Last night at Atlanta’s Woodruff Art Center, the rising star and Grammy nominated vocalist Jazzmeia Horn lit up the stage of the four hundred plus seat Rich Auditorium. This performance was the second of a series of exciting concerts given under the banner of Emerging Jazz Icon Series. The series is a synergistic collaboration between the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs (OCA) and the Atlanta Jazz Festival (AJF) under the direction of Camille Russell Love, the Woodruff Arts Center (WAC) and Public Broadcasting Atlanta (PBA) home radio station WABE-FM.

In a recent telephone conversation with Ms. Love, she spoke of being approached by Woodruff CEO Doug Shipman about doing something together that could further promote jazz at the Woodruff. The collaboration of these two entities along with Atlanta's PBA made possible the booking of three concerts for this series that promotes new and emerging artists in jazz.

The first concert was held back in November 4, 2017 and featured the rising star vocalist Charnée Wade. Wade placed second in the prestigious Thelonious Monk vocal competition in 2010, losing only to vocal sensation Cécile McClorin Savant and edging out formidable new comer vocalist Cyrille Aimée.

Last night was the second concert in this series and what a concert it was. Ms. Horn is a photogenic image of a youthful, vivacious and proud Afro-American woman. She wore here hair in her now emblematic traditional African headwrap and print Dashiki-like gown of purple, maroon and gold. 

Kenny Bank Jr., Kevin Smith, Jazzmeia Horn, Henry Conerway III at the Woodruff 

Full disclosure here, I wrote very favorably about Ms. Horn’s debut album A Social Call, back in June on my blog and in the Huffington Post (a link to that article can be accessed by clicking here.) At the time I called her “An impressive new voice.” I named her album on my year end "Best of 2017" list as well as best debut for the year, so needless to say, I was pumped to be finally getting the opportunity to see this promising vocalist perform.

The concert, which was advertised to start at 8:00pm, didn’t actually commence until after 8:30pm. The light rain and a snafu with some patron’s tickets at the door perhaps contributing to this delay.  When Ms. Horn entered the stage, she was greeted with warm and inviting applause from a dapperly dressed, enthusiastic albeit demographically older audience. Her band was a top-notch group of Atlanta based musicians. The ever-ebullient pianist Kenny Banks Jr., the stalwart bassist Kevin Smith and the percussive traps artist Henry Conerway III. Having had multiple opportunities to see these guys perform at various venues around Atlanta, I was convinced that any one of these musicians were worth the price of admission. But it was Ms. Horn who we came to see, and she made sure she didn’t disappoint.

The show featured seven selections from her album A Social Call and started with the Betty Carter tune “Tight.” Ms. Horn has obviously been influenced by the idiosyncratic style of Ms. Carter and it was especially evident on the lead song. The angular delivery of the lyrics in this serpentine song was quite impressive. Even more impressive was the ‘tight” arrangement and execution by this band that probably had no more than an afternoon’s rehearsal with the singer before the show.  The only thing missing from this one was the elastic interplay between Ms. Horn and the tenor of Stacy Dillard on the album.

Ms. Horn and company continued with the Rodgers and Hart classic “I Didn’t Know What Time it Was,” which has been sung by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Sarah Vaughan. The singer has a tremendous voice with an impressive range that allows her to do acrobatic intervallic leaps and she did so on this one. Drummer Conerway gently brushed his traps and bassist Smith offered a booming and creative solo. Ms. Horn twisted her voice at one point creating an almost yodel-like effect that was reminiscent of Leon Thomas’s work.

The third selection of the evening was “Up Above My Head,” a song written by Dallas based choir director Myron Butler, is a gospel inspired song arranged here with a funky break. Ms. Horn’s voice sometimes reminds me of the great Nancy Wilson, especially when she emotes into the lyrics, but for whatever reason she often chooses to wordlessly scat rather than pursue the depths of a lyric.  There is no doubt that her voice is marvelously flexible, dexterously controlled and often pitch perfect, but for me she would be better served to embellish but not abandon the lyrics and be more judicious in her use of scat and vocalese. 

On her debut album, Ms. Horn wanted to A Social Call to entertain but also make a social statement. On the next selection, she introduced the Stylistics soul classic “People Make the World Go Round” with a politically charged excoriation of the powers that be; those that seem to allow the continued deterioration of the earth and would rather promote divisiveness over community and love. This is a tricky thing to do in front of a paying crowd of undoubtedly mixed political persuasions that came to be entertained and not be proselytized, but she has a marvelously likeable stage presence and the audience responded positively.

The highlight of the musical evening may have come when Ms. Horn and Mr. Banks did their own intimate version of Jimmy Rowles “The Peacocks.” This beautiful composition is difficult to pull off because it has such a quirky melodic line, but Horn has mastered this one to perfection. I thought the studio version with pianist Victor Gould was exceptionally well done, but Banks own idiosyncratic approach in accompanying her was delightful and inventive, and the duo had the crowd in the palm of their hands.

Kevin Smith and Jazzmeia Horn at the Woodruff
When the group returned to the stage, the jubilant bassist Kevin Smith, a stalwart around the Atlanta area, shinned with his facile bass introduction to “East of the Sun and West of the Moon.” Horn again had a distinctively Betty Carter coo to her voice. There was a point in the song where she took on the role of another improvising instrument from stage right, bantering in vocalese with Banks Jr. In the jazz tradition this is normally a showdown of sorts, a two-instrument call and response, with the gymnastic Ms. Horn's vocal improvisations sometimes hard for the smiling Banks Jr. to counter to in kind.

The finale was a medley of the gospel “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (where Horn got the compliant crowd singing along with her) and the Art Blakey classic “Moanin’.”  Ms. Horn scatted at times like a saxophone and at times like a trumpet. Drummer Conerway was rock-solid throughout the evening. On this one he was given a chance to break out a little and indeed he did with a percussive explosion and some marvelous interplay between himself and Ms. Horn.

The concert was a resounding success and an elated Ms. Horn received a bouquet of flowers from Ms. Love at the end of the show, a parting gift from the City of Atlanta.  Ms. Horn will be off to the Grammy awards tonight in New York City where she will perform and, if there is any justice, receive the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal album for 2017.

The Woodruff Arts Center, Camille Russell Love and the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs and Public Broadcasting of Atlanta should all take a well-deserved bow for creating such a wonderful showcase for up and coming jazz artists. It is thoughtful, progressive programs like these that ensure that this only truly indigenous American art form will not only survive but flourish, and that there will be a place for these artists to perform.  

The Emerging Jazz Icon series at the Woodruff has one more concert planned, this one by the piano phenom Christian Sands, on Saturday April 7, 2018. This young firebrand has toured extensively as part of the Grammy nominated Christian McBride Trio. Be sure to secure your tickets in advance as this one will surely sell out.

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