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Downbeat, July 2017: Addressing 'Social' Issues

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Wednesday June 14, 2017

From Downbeat Magazine, July 2017

JAZZMEIA HORN: Addressing ‘Social’ Issues
By: John Murph

When Jazzmeia Horn, 26, takes the stage, she owns it. She exudes a fervid yet regal presence that commands respect, which augments her graceful singing.

“It comes naturally for me,” she said, referring to the confidence she projects during her performances. “I’m always aware that people are watching me. So from the first moment I step onto a stage, even before the music starts, I say to myself, ‘People came to see you.’”

That conviction—combined with her luminous vocals—helped her win the 2015 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocals Competition in Los Angeles. There she channeled the interactive showmanship of Betty Carter, the unapologetic honesty of Abbey Lincoln and the sophisticated sass of Sarah Vaughan. She delivered persuasive readings of such intricate standards as Monk’s “Evidence,” Jimmy Rowles’ “The Peacocks” and Carter’s “Tight.”

“Even though it was a competition, I knew that I would be more comfortable if I treated it like a performance,” Horn recalled. “If I thought of it like a competition, I could have easily freaked out and dropped the ball.” Horn’s confidence was so resolute that she didn’t shy away from addressing societal ills that were surfacing as a backdrop to the competition. During the finals, her testifying readings of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice And Sing” and gutbucket retooling of Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’” gave a timely sociopolitical commentary in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, the protest at the University of Missouri campus that occurred several weeks prior to the competition; and even more timely, the multiple terrorists attacks in Paris, which happened just a day before the semifinals.

For Horn, using her platform to address social issues and uplift listeners is a divine calling that was articulated by grandmother. “She would always say to me, ‘You are responsible for the generation before and the generation after you.’ I’m not a protester. I can’t go out into the streets and protest because I have children. But I do know what my calling is. By any means necessary, I will use my music to bring light to people.”

The controlled combustible energy that Horn unleashed at the Monk Competition ignites Horn’s iridescent debut, A Social Call (Prestige). In fact, the disc features “Tight,” “Lift Every Voice And Sing” and “Moanin’” as well as poignant interpretations of The Stylistics’ 1972 r&b hit “People Make The World Go Round,” Brooks Bowman’s jazz standard “East Of The Sun (And West Of The Moon)” and Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s gospel staple “Up Above My
Head.”

One of the disc’s more surprising if daring moments is Horn’s zesty version of “I’m Going Down,” which was a hit for Rose Royce in 1977 and then for Mary J. Blige in 1995. It’s a lament that’s often rendered with nearly paralyzing despair. Horn takes another artistic route and buoys it with redemptive joy. “I was still little when I first heard the song, so I didn’t really understand what it really meant,” Horn reflected. “But later on, I saw [the protagonist as] a woman who was broken. So I took the concept of her going down but coming back—how that could be a message of encouragement, and about taking care of yourself.”

A Social Call radiates energy, thanks to the fervent accord of Horn’s ensemble: pianist Victor Gould, bassist Ben Williams, trombonist Ku-umba Frank Lacy, tenor saxophonist Stacy Dillard, trumpeter Josh Evans and drummer Jerome Jennings. Except for Williams, Horn has worked with these musicians on a consistent basis.

“I’d actually started the creative process of this album before the [Monk] Competition,” Horn said. “In the case that I would win, I already knew which songs I wanted to record and who I wanted to play on the album.”

Williams commends Horn on her artistic maturity. “It feels like she has a soul that’s much older than she is,” he said. “She’s very strong, assertive and very Afrocentric. She just has this old soul that comes out in her voice and music.”

Horn, a Dallas native, has been thriving in New York for the past eight years, gaining experience working with esteemed musicians such as Winard Harper, Billy Harper and Jimmy Owens. Growing up in a family in which various members played instruments in church and sang, Horn seemed destined for a career as a musician.

“On both sides of my family, there were people who could sang. I don’t mean sing. They could really sang,” Horn said with a chuckle. “When I grew up, I didn’t really understand people who could not sing or play an instrument.”

It was Horn’s grandmother Harriett, a church pianist and organist, who bestowed upon her the name Jazzmeia.

“My grandfather would not allow her to play any music that wasn’t sacred music—even though she wanted to,” Horn said. “She said that she wanted to give me her gift in music. She pretty much gave me her legacy even though she wasn’t able to play jazz and blues. Now I’m living that dream.”