February 2019

Slow Burns

A Baker’s Dozen of Great Performances by Shirley Horn

Shirley Horn – the subject of the In Tune Icon column for February – was a one-of-a-kind jazz performer. She had a deeply intimate, slow-burn way of singing ballads, as if she were whispering into a listener’s ear. Horn also diverged from most jazz vocalists in that she
accompanied herself at the piano, with her own subtle groove and virtually all the colors she needed (and usually with just bass and drums in support). Trumpet icon Miles Davis was a big fan of her patient, spacious style from the get-go. In the early ’60s, he pushed for Horn to be able to play intermissions during his sold-out runs at New York City’s Village Vanguard; three decades later, Davis paid her the high compliment of making a rare latter-day appearance as a sideman for the singer, 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 a Grammy Award in 1999.

Horn was born in 1934 and raised in Washington, D.C., which she made her base for the rest of her life. 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.” Horn was a key influence on star jazz singer-pianist Diana Krall, something that you can hear in the younger artist’s treatment of ballads and easy-swinging numbers (and the way that she insists on both playing and singing). This playlist includes tracks from across Horn’s career, with the performances remarkably consistent from that debut disc that caught Davis’s ear through to her acclaimed late-era major-label albums. About her style, Horn said: “Space is a valuable commodity in music. Too many musicians rush. It’s important to understand what the song is saying, and learn how to tell the story. It takes time.”  — Bradley Bambarger