"Horn's taste is impeccable, her conviction contagious, and when she sings a lyric . . . we accept it as pure gospel." - Vanity Fair
When Shirley Horn sings a song, she changes the way we hear it forever. Widely regarded as the premiere singing pianist in jazz since Nat "King" Cole, Horn applies her unique alchemy to eleven classic and contemporary songs on You're My Thrill, her eleventh recording for Verve. This album also reunites Horn with Johnny Mandel, who produced and orchestrated Horn's Here's to Life (1992), her best-selling and most popular album to date.
Renowned for her inimitable ability to negotiate melodies and lyrics at an exquisitely unhurried pace, Horn opens her new album with a breathless version of the title track, and follows that lead with equally heart-stopping ballad performances that include "I Got Lost in His Arms," "My Heart Stood Still," "The Very Thought of You," and "All Night Long." A stand-out track is her reading of "Solitary Moon," a Mandel composition never before recorded with the lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman. Johnny Mandel's lush orchestration complements her voice perfectly on these tracks. While You're My Thrill reconfirms her status as a romantic chanteuse without peer, it also showcases Horn's often overlooked prowess as a straight-ahead swinger as she steps out with her trio on uptempo and blues numbers including "The Best Is Yet To Come," "Sharing the Night With the Blues," "The Rules of the Road," "You Better Love Me," and "Why Don't You Do Right." The combination of these trio tunes and the full orchestra tracks makes You're My Thrill a wonderfully varied collection.
As she has been for the past two decades, Horn is accompanied on You're My Thrill by bassist Charles Ables and drummer Steve Williams. "We've been together for about twenty-eight and eighteen years, resepectively," she says. "They know which way I'm going to turn. When the mood is really there and we get into it, it seems like we can feel each other. I remember the concert we did at the Théâtre du Châtelet in 1992 for the I Love You, Paris album," Horn continues. "The music was so strong and we were so together, we all got goose pimples. We went back in the dressing room and we were so full of music, there were no words, we just hugged."
"Most of these are songs I grew up with," says Horn, who still lives in her native Washington, D.C. "My family loved music and there was always music around from the greatest singers and bands. Usually, I just learned the songs my mother used to sing around the home. I would ask her, 'What's the name of this one, what's the name of that one?' because I'd have the melody in my mind. I remember hearing Peggy Lee singing 'Why Don't You Do Right.' In fact, probably 75 percent of the songs I do are ones I heard at home."
But Horn did not set out to be a singer. "It was an accident," she explains. "What I remember first in my life is playing the piano. That's when I was four years old. I'd go to my grandmother's home. She had a parlor with a great big piano. The parlor was for company, and it was closed off with French doors. It was always cold, but I didn't want to do anything but just go in there and sit on the piano stool. I wasn't interested in playing with the kids outside. After several years of this my grandmother told my mother to get me lessons."
Horn discovered the allure of her singing when, at seventeen, she was playing in a local restaurant/night club. "One night close to Christmas, this older gentleman who would regularly come in for dinner came with a teddy bear as tall as I. Somehow I knew that was for me," she recalls. Indeed, the patron sent her a note saying "If you sing 'Melancholy Baby' the teddy bear is yours." "I was very shy and it was hard for me to sing," Horn says, "but I wanted that teddy bear."
Audiences continued to ask for songs and Horn eased into her role as a vocalist. "It was no big thing, but then I started to realize how much I loved to sing." One of her most requested tunes was "You're My Thrill." The song stayed in Horn's repertoire for more than twenty years whenever she played the One Step Down, which she remembers as "the best little jazz joint" in D.C. "Joe, the owner, would say 'you've got to record that song'," she remembers, "and I said 'I'm going do it once I've made up my mind.'"
Although content to stay at home, Horn was coaxed away to New York City in 1960 by Miles Davis. Notoriously disdainful of singers, Davis had been seduced by Horn's debut recording, Embers and Ashes. He invited her to open for him at the Village Vanguard, catapulting her into a limelight she had never sought. After Horn retreated from view for much of the 1970s and 1980s to raise her daughter, she found her fame blossoming anew after her 1987 signing to Verve. In 1990, not long before his death in 1991, Davis added his graceful trumpet phrases to the title track of Horn's You Won't Forget Me. In 1998, Horn paid tribute to her mentor with the brilliant I Remember Miles, for which she won the GRAMMY award for Best Jazz Vocal Performance. All in all, Horn has garnered seven consecutive GRAMMY nominations, and her albums Here's to Life, Light Out of Darkness (A Tribute to Ray Charles), and I Love You, Paris all soared to number one on the Billboard jazz charts.
What Davis, Quincy Jones, and others heard as early as 1960 has been affirmed over the years by numerous awards and recognitions. In addition to her GRAMMY award and nominations, Horn has won five WAMMYs, the Washington area's music industry award. In 1987, she was presented the Mayor's Arts Award for "Excellence in an Artistic Discipline" in Washington, DC. In 1990 Horn's Close Enough for Love album won one of France's premiere music awards, the Academie Du Jazz's Prix Billie Holiday. In 1993, she added the prestigious Edison Populair HR57 Award for Here's to Life to her stunning list of honors. Three years later, Horn was elected to the Lionel Hampton Jazz Hall of Fame. In 1998, Marilyn Bergman, President of ASCAP honored Horn "in recognition of over four decades of her unique and influential role in interpreting the American song," and in 1999, Horn was selected as the recipient of the Phineas Newborn, Jr. Award, with an all-star tribute concert in her honor. Most recently, she was voted #1 female vocalist in the New York Jazz Critics Awards and #1 jazz vocalist in DownBeat's Critics' Poll.
Inviting listeners into an elegant and sincere musical embrace, You're My Thrill is the latest stunning result of Shirley Horn's singular ability to connect with her collaborators, her material, and her audience at the most heartfelt level.
Photo by Larry Busacca