Live review

Jazzmeia Horn/Scottish National Jazz Orchestra at Usher Hall, Edinburgh

Jazzmeia Horn/Scottish National Jazz Orchestra – The Artistry of Jazzmeia Horn
(Usher Hall, Edinburgh. 24 November 2019. Review by Mark McKergow)

Jazz vocalist extraordinary Jazzmeia Horn raised the roof of Edinburgh’s Usher Hall with a stunning display of singing, storytelling, scat improvising and pure jazz aesthetic in this, the last of her short series of concerts with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra.

SNJO leader Tommy Smith saw Horn performing in the USA and, very impressed, negotiated a visit to Scotland as a high priority. His foresight is clear – Jazzmeia Horn’s first CD Social Call was nominated for a Grammy and any delay would surely have led to the vocalist being out of the SNJO’s budget. This week brought news that her second CD, Love And Liberation, has also been Grammy nominated. If you haven’t heard of her so far, this review will be far from the last time.

Jazzmeia Horn. Photo © Kat Pfeiffer

Dallas-born, named by her jazz-loving grandmother and mentored by top talents like Bobby McFerrin, Abbey Lincoln and Jon Hendricks, 28-year-old Jazzmeia Horn is already a very impressive jazz performer. She has a huge range, from low growls to stratospheric squeals and a rich mid-tone vocal quality that reminded me a little of our own Dame Cleo Laine in her younger days. She has genuine jazz chops, improvising on every song, sometimes in classic scat mode (as on tonight’s opening number I’ll Remember You) bringing to mind Ella Fitzgerald, other times (as on Jimmy Rowles’ The Peacocks with words by Norma Winstone) in a much more free-form style.

Jazzmeia Horn also has a quality somewhat less common in jazz singers – Attitude, with a capital A. The second song in the programme, People Make The World, opened with a monologue over ostinato bass from hard-working Calum Gourlay about the state of the world and how we don’t really talk about it – leaves the audience in no doubt about Horn’s desire for continuing emancipation and respect. She takes on Lift Every Voice, often referred to as the Black national anthem, before segueing into Bobby Timmons’ Moanin’ with Jon Hendricks’ lyrics, another classic cry for liberation. Her stage presence is totally engaged, urging the musicians on with hand gestures and little whoops, beaming and applauding the soloists.

This series of engagement with the SNJO saw Horn bringing a series of arrangements by Bill Dobbins, long a mainstay of the WDR and NDR big band operations. We were treated to passages of beautifully harmonised section playing, often dialled down in volume to bring out the concise harmonies, the SNJO sounding even tighter than usual and producing a fine ensemble sound. Tommy Smith and Martin Kershaw produced well-formed saxophone solos, the latter sounding positively Parker-esque on alto. Flautist Yvonne Robertson, always flawless in her reading, took a standout solo on the atmospheric Legs And Arms, a very personal song by Horn prefaced with a moving introductory tale – the Usher Hall was silently entranced.

The concert featured a mix of originals and standards, all with solo space and unexpected twists. Free Your Mind, a Horn original, is surely destined to be a standard of the future. Softly As In A Morning Sunrise was taken at a tremendous clip in 7/4, and the closing Honeysuckle Rose featured a delightful chase sequence between Horn, the soaring punchy trumpet of Russell Bennett and Pete Johnstone’s piano, striding into the future via the past.

Sold-out weeks at Ronnie’s, the Hollywood Bowl, Albert Hall residencies, White House galas (albeit under a different US President)… these all surely lie in the future for Jazzmeia Horn. Next time she visits these shores, you’d better get there early. In the meantime both her albums, Social Call and Love And Liberation, are on the streaming services now – check them out.

LINK: Concord Records webpage for Jazzmeia Horn 

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