Jazz musicians, like any artist, have to learn to express who they are. Yes, they have to make sure their instrumental technique is spot on, and keep putting in the practice hours. But, basically, what divides the technicians from the creative folk is finding their own voice and conveying that to the public.
Jazzmeia Horn doesn’t seem to ever have had a problem with that. The American vocalist is heading this way soon, from New York, to star in the winter edition of the Red Sea Jazz Festival, along with an instrumental trio.
The festival program, which runs under the curatorship of perennial artistic director Dubi Lenz, down in Eilat February 23-25, takes in a splendidly variegated lineup of acts from here and abroad.
The jazz side of the cast includes American saxophonist Avraham Fefer, Azerbaijani powerhouse pianist Isfar Sarabski, Argentinean pianist Gabriel Palatchi, and a supergroup of Spanish pianist Chano Domínguez, Italian trumpeter Flavio Boltro and Spanish bassist Martín Leiton, with Michael Olivera from Cuba behind the drum set and internationally acclaimed Israeli saxophonist Eli Degibri completing the quintet.
There is plenty of firepower on the local side of the program, too, including a generous sprinkling of non-jazzy fare. Chief among the latter is popular pianist-vocalist Shlomi Shaban, who opens the festival, with multi-instrumentalist Eyal and Asaf Talmudi in support, while veteran singer-songwriter Arkadi Duchin reprises some nuggets from his long career to date with his Me’ahorei Hamilim (Behind the Words) band.
The Israeli jazz community has plenty to shout about, too, with the likes of New York-based guitarist Yotam Silberstein, who, together with his trio and guest flutist Itai Kriss, will showcase cuts off his latest album, Universos. Other local jazz acts to look out for include bassist Asaf Hakimi’s unusual sextet lineup with four saxophonists, while Tal Mashiach, who is probably best known as a bassist but these days often plays guitar, fronts an intriguing quartet of fellow guitarist Nitzan Bar, cellist Maya Belsitzman and drummer Ofri Nehemya. Belsitzman will also present a master class, as will Degibri.
Who is Jazzmeia Horn?
BUT BACK to Horn, her vocal dynamics and uncomplicated joie de vivre.
Horn is quite simply one of the standout voices in jazz today, in more senses than one. At the age of 31, she already has three albums to her name, impressively all nominated for Grammys. She also has her own record label, with the 2021 release Dear Love with her Noble Force big band bringing her a Grammy nomination for Best Large Ensemble Album. In fact, one album led to the other. Wearying of being turned down by labels that were not willing to finance a big band recording, she simply got her own act together and put it out herself.
Horn feels the last Grammy nomination was a particularly well-deserved feather in her cap.
“Not only did I write the songs, compose most of them and arrange all of them, but it also came out on Empress Legacy Records, which is my very own label. I make the masters myself. It is also the No. 1 record in 2023. It made the top of the jazz charts.”Jazzmeia Horn
“Not only did I write the songs, compose most of them and arrange all of them, but it also came out on Empress Legacy Records, which is my very own label. I make the masters myself. It is also the No. 1 record in 2023. It made the top of the jazz charts,” she exclaims with undisguised delight.
She is certainly not lacking in the self-confidence department, a prime requisite for someone who earns her crust as a vocalist, the most direct and personal area of musical performance.
Horn says she always knew she was going to climb up the jazz pile. That may sound like undiluted bravado, but she had the drive and genetic credentials. She comes from a musical family, with all the members singing or playing various instruments, or both.
Initially, however, it wasn’t about jazz. She began singing in church where her grandfather served as pastor, in Dallas, when she was hardly knee high to a grasshopper.
“Church music dominated my life,” she says. “I grew up there. By the time I was three, I started singing in the choir there.”
I presumed she had to stand on a chair to ensure she could be heard as well as seen. “I didn’t. My sound was big enough,” she said, laughing.
She was destined for bigger things, and she knew that instinctively early on. I wondered when it became apparent to her that she was going to turn professional and make music her career.
“Right away,” says Horn. “I remember when we were seven my brother and I were watching the Grammys on TV. We were singing along with the music, and I told him that whoever goes to the Grammys first, whoever gets nominated first, we have to take the other one.”
Almost two decades on and that dream became a reality when Horn’s debut record, A Social Call, was shortlisted for a Grammy.
“My brother was my date for that,” she chuckles. “I always knew it would happen. I didn’t know how soon or how, but I knew I had a gift, and I knew that, one day, I was going to be on that red carpet, and it happened.”
That took place in 2017, followed by two more invites to the music industry’s most prestigious awards event, and who’s to say she won’t get a fourth nomination – possibly even a win – for her next album? She and her band have a recording date set for when she returns Stateside from Eilat.
I couldn’t help asking about Horn’s given name. Like so many aspects of her life thus far, there’s a great story behind it.
“Before my mother knew she was pregnant with me, her mother told her she was going to have a baby and her name would be Jazzmeia,” says Horn. “My mom laughed and said she must be crazy. A few days later my mother found out she was pregnant. And she kept the name for me.” Proof of the age-old tenet that Mom is always right.
Horn was introduced to jazz at high school by a faculty member called Roger Boykin. “He played with people like [saxophonist] Billy Harper and [singer] Freddy Cole. He came at me with this attitude thing. He said to me: You’re called Jazzmeia and you don’t know anything about jazz music?”
Boykin promptly gave the teenager a compilation CD of legendary vocalists like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. The youngster was mesmerized by what she heard, learning the Vaughan number overnight and just taking off from there.
“I sang it to him verbatim the next day, and he started teaching me about the history of jazz,” she recalls. The flood gates were well and truly open.
Youthful enthusiasm and innate gifts are all well and good, but at the end of the day you’ve got to prove yourself when and where it matters. After high school she relocated to New York, to attend the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music, and dived headlong into the intricacies of the art form. She went along to gigs, at top venues like the Village Vanguard and Blue Note, to learn from her seniors. She lapped it all up, took it on board and worked it into her own evolving musical skill set.
But it wasn’t until she got the call to sing in a bona fide New York gig, by pianist-educator Lafayette Harris, that she began to feel she was getting a foot in the professional jazz scene doorway. That proved to be a game changer, and the gig invites began to come in, from seasoned professionals such as drummer Bernard Purdie and trumpeter-band leader Charles Tolliver.
She also picked up some significant kudos along the way, including placing first in the jazz sector’s top contest, the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition, and wins, in consecutive years, in the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition, named after the singer who, unknowingly, helped Horn along her jazz way.
Horn comes across as a go-getter who wears her heart on her sleeve and pulls no punches when it comes to pursuing her goals. Her singing also has a strong roots feel to it.
“My grandfather was very adamant we knew our history, and making sure we know where we come from,” she notes.
It can help to know your backdrop if you’re going to make real headway in life and especially in creative pursuits. Horn clearly has a good handle on that. She says she has overcome racial- and gender-related prejudices and is determined to stick to her guns.
We will get some of that inner strength and the boundless pleasure she gets from making music, in Eilat.
“It’s going to be even more, because I am going to be so happy to be there, in Israel,” she says.
Jazz fans here should be prepared to be right royally swept off their feet.
For tickets and more information: www.redseajazz.co.il