Shirley Horn was barely a cult figure the first time I saw her perform May 8, 1989, at her Kuumbwa Jazz Center debut. The experience was transformative, and even as a relative newcomer I knew that Horn was an artist of the highest order.
It wasn’t just the way that her ballads seemed to defy the flow of time, each beat suspended on her drummer’s feathery brush strokes. Or her telegraphic piano work, which enfolded her burnished, coppery vocals with piquantly ringing harmonies. Horn remade each song in that Santa Cruz performance with her inimitable sound, a bracing blend of vulnerability, aching sensuality, and imperious command.
The mystery was why, in her mid-50s, she’d yet to break through. Horn had released a handful of albums in the first half of the 1960s, then spent almost a decade without recording and rarely performing outside of Washington, D.C., while raising her daughter. Releasing four excellent albums for the respected Danish label Steeplechase from 1979-85 didn’t do much to raise her profile in the U.S., but Horn, who died in 2005 at the age of 71, wasn’t destined for obscurity.
Richard Seidel signed her to Verve in 1987 as part of the vaunted label’s revitalization, and after a couple of well-received albums they hit upon an ideal recipe to showcase Horn’s singular talent. With a bevy of guest artists, including longtime fans Toots Thielemans and Miles Davis, Horn’s prophetically titled album “You Won’t Forget Me” came out 30 years ago on Feb. 12, 1991, transforming her from a hidden treasure into one of jazz’s biggest stars.
The album topped the jazz charts for seven weeks and garnered Horn her first Grammy nomination. All eight releases that followed also earned Grammy nominations for best jazz vocal album (an award she won for 1998’s “I Remember Miles”). Where her first two Verve releases sold several thousand copies, “You Won’t Forget Me” sold more than 200,000 worldwide.
“We were able to get full-page stories on Shirley in ‘Time’ and ‘Newsweek,’ and she appeared on ‘The Tonight Show,’” said Seidel, a Noe Valley resident for the past decade. “She went from playing small clubs to filling concert halls and playing major festivals, like Newport.” She also performed the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1994, recording a stellar set released years by Concord Jazz.
Seidel was vaguely familiar with Horn when he first saw her perform in the early 1980s at an International Association of Jazz Educators convention in Washington, D.C. She made a wee hours appearance at a jam session “and I was spellbound,” he recalled. “I vowed to record her someday.”
He got the chance seven years later when Verve geared up to release new jazz projects again after some two decades of relying on its vast catalog of albums by storied artists such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nina Simone, and Oscar Peterson. Looking to reconnect with Horn, Seidel dropped by her second show at a short-lived Greenwich Village club called Carlos 1, “and I was the only person in the club,” …read more
Source:: The Mercury News – Entertainment
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