The inordinately gifted Jazzmeia Horn has been piling up prestigious awards for most of the last decade, including top honors at the 2013 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition and first place at the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition in 2015.
The Monk contest triumph resulted in her Grammy Award-nominated 2017 debut album A Social Call, which was voted the best jazz vocal debut in the 2017 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll. On A Social Call, she gracefully interpreted spiritual and gospel songs, 1970s R&B and blues, as well as standards inextricably linked to her formative influences, Betty Carter and Sarah Vaughan.
Horn, 28, arrives in town with a sneak preview of her second album Love and Liberation, a project slated for release in August. It focuses on her original songs, a side of her artistry she’s excited to introduce.
“A Social Call had some really fun arrangements and the sound is truly mine, but with Love and Liberation, my audience can now hear my soul expressed fully!” Horn wrote to GT in an email from China, where she was on tour with her band. While she sees her first album as “a call to bring social awareness to a particular dysfunction in our society,” her second “is a call to action. In order for one to love one has to be liberated, and liberation is an act of love.”
Part of Horn’s liberation entails calling her own shots on the bandstand. She’s been honing her skills as a bandleader, working with some of the top young players on the New York scene. The combo she brings to the West Coast for this run includes bassist Corcoran Holt (who performed in the Bay Area last year with legendary tenor saxophonist/composer Benny Golson), drummer Jeremy “Bean” Clemons, and pianist Keith Brown, the son of Memphis piano great Donald Brown and a regular accompanist for veteran heavyweights like trumpeter Charles Tolliver and saxophonist Steve Slagle.
For Brown, Horn’s expansive toolkit as an improviser makes the gig the best kind of proving ground. “Playing with Jazzmeia is great because you’re playing with someone who is an amazing vocalist who can also scat, create melodies and hear harmony as well as any instrumentalist,” he says. “You really have to be on your toes ‘cause she can go so many different places in an instant.”
In many ways, music is Horn’s birthright. She grew up in a very musical family, and her mother encouraged her to express herself at a young age. By 3 years old, she was performing in her church’s choir. She soaked up the sounds around her, but jazz didn’t enter her consciousness until she enrolled in the Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, a Dallas institution known for alumni like Erykah Badu, Norah Jones and Roy Hargrove.
It was at Booker T. that a music teacher told her that considering her given moniker, it behooved Horn to get acquainted with her namesake art form. A mix tape of definitive jazz vocalists got her started, and before long she was absorbing influences from far and wide. She zeroed in on Nancy Wilson’s narratives and Nina Simone’s power, Betty Carter’s playfulness, Sarah Vaughan’s tone, and Shirley Horn’s phrasing.
She’s hardly done with her studies. Always on the lookout for the deepest sources of soul, Horn keeps her ears filled with creative nourishment. She cites several albums in regular rotation, including underground L.A. phenom Georgia Anne Muldrow’s Overload, Donny Hathaway’s Everything Is Everything, 1950s standard Sarah Vaughan with Clifford Brown, and Malian diva Oumou Sangare’s Ko Sira. For Horn, jazz isn’t a destination as much as a vehicle for sonic exploration.
Jazzmeia Horn performs at 7 p.m. on Monday, June 10, at Kuumbwa Jazz, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. $36.75 adv/$42 door. 427-2227.