In his liner note blurb, critic Stanley Crouch argues that jazz vocalist Shirley Horn makes music for adults, linking the shallow frivolity of current popular music to its eagerness to please the youth market. At a time when 30-year-olds in both Britain and the United States feel no compunction at reading nothing but children’s books and going out dancing to ‘80s music dressed up in their school uniforms, it may very well be that the adult is an endangered species, likely to leave no audience capable of the patience and attention required to begin to appreciate Horn’s careful and eloquent phrasing.
Horn doesn’t have the kind of voice capable of pyrotechnical explosions into stratospheric octaves, but she has the ability to enunciate unerringly, implying several shades of emotion with each phrasing, a talent far more significant far more difficult to obtain, as it requires the combination of intuition and intelligence with years of practice rather than the simple exercise of a harnessed natural gift. Her voice is slow and deep, rich and precise, under such complete control that her every nuance is capable of connoting conscious choice, and thus artistic meaning. And she is never theatrical, never false—she uses no gimmicks or tricks, no flashy shifts in register, no pretentious pronunciations, no affected sobs, to accomplish her ends.
Crouch makes much the same point, attributing this to a metaphysical quotient of “soul”, but this seems to unnecessarily mystify and spiritualize Horn’s actual accomplishments. Comparing her approach on early albums such as Loads of Love and Shirley Horn with Horns to what she evinces here reveals how much subtlety can be learned over 40 years of professional performance. Her voice is just as clear, just as firm as it was then, only now she is able to carry songs with virtually no arrangement to buoy her. With the exception of “Take Love Easy”, the instrumental backings here are minimal, spare almost to the point of vanishing, often stripped down to sparse piano and the brushing of a cymbal. It’s lonely, late night music, with the tempos meditative, the moods ruminative, and the emotions quietly desperate. “Ill Wind” and “This is All I Ask” weren’t conceived as seven minute dirges, but that is what they become in Horn’s hands, making a listener wonder if indeed the music will never end. Her singing is wonderfully expressive throughout, but no amount of expression could prevent these songs, so similar in emotional tone, from sounding the same. The second half of the disc, particularly, drags, conjuring the scene of a cabaret bar long after closing time, with a woman perched at the piano, so enamored of her own emotive powers that she refuses to let the night end, even though it has been a long, depressing one.
Because so many of them sound so similar, the song selection almost seems immaterial, but a few tracks stand out. The opener, “Forget Me”, features some lively (relatively speaking) dynamics from pianist George Mesterhazy, and “Yesterday” presents the all too familiar Beatles song in a surprisingly fresh manner, dragging it out into a torch song, draining it of all its easy sentimentality, and discovering within it a fair amount of authentic anguish. Horn’s reading of Jacques Brel’s “If You Go Away” blends pleading with resignation perfectly, creating an almost unbearable amount of tension. Such tension, which surfaces to greater and lesser degrees in all the songs is what ultimately rescues Horn’s performances from becoming boring background music. No matter how turgid she may choose to make her arrangements, she never fails to convince listeners that real feelings are at stake, animating her need to sing in the first place. But it may be that contemporary audiences don’t want anything to be at stake, don’t want tension, but would prefer music that would allow them to escape from complexity into something soothingly bland. This is why smooth jazz has eradicated jazz altogether, and why all the singers of Horn’s stature are so old. No one is emerging to replace them.
// Notes from the Road
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