Shirley Horn at Le Jazz Au Bar

Shirley Horn at Le Jazz Au Bar

by Sy Johnson

copyright © 2004 Sy Johnson

I maintain that the last great statement of Miles Davis's genius was his collaboration with Shirley Horn, transforming "You Won't Forget Me" into a vehicle for her vocal and his solo that compares with Billie Holiday and Lester Young, and Joni Mitchell and Jaco Pastorious, setting a standard that may never be eclipsed.

And I further maintain that "Here's To Life," her collaboration with Johnny Mandel, equals Nelson Riddle and Frank Sinatra, or Billy May and Frank, or Jobin and Frank, repaying full attention or bed-time languor with undiminishing rewards.

Shirley is confined to a wheel chair now, and is unable to accompany herself on the piano. I've always admired Shirley's skills at the keyboard (listen to Miles' audible approval on "You Won't Forget Me" or Johnny Mandel's care in following the shape and particulars of her playing in his orchestrations for "Here's to Life"). George Mesterhazy has undertaken the responsibilities of the piano -- half of her identity -- and he does so with much empathy and skill. His loving attention has enabled Shirley to weather what must have been a difficult transition in her life as an artist : to return to music as not only a singer confined to a wheelchair, but unable to control the flow of the music underneath with her own hands on the piano keys. She has been her own best accompanist for her entire career, and now has to express that side of her art through another set of hands and ears.

At her engagement at Le Jazz Au Bar in Manhattan, George Mesterhazy was joined by Ed Howard on bass and Steve Williams on drums in accompanying Shirley. I was especially curious about one thing. Shirley Horn has an ability I particularly admire — an unparalleled command of the slowest of ballad tempos, a command that she was able to maintain through her absolute confidence in her own inner metronome, and in her own personal accompanist, herself. She set up a zone around herself, abetted by her longtime bassist, the late Charles Ables, and her present drummer Steve Williams, in which she could shape a melody, and tell a story with an unfailing sense of time and place. She could be simple, direct and truthful without any of the mannerisms lesser singers develop to hide their failings — over elaborate, over loud, overwrought.

When Shirley arrived at her place on the bandstand, with a discreet little table set up next to her for a glass of water, she immediately dispelled any questions about one thing — the lady can still sing!! She opened with one of her signature songs, "How Am I To Know?", punching through the arpeggiated melody with even more abandon than on her record. "Nice 'n' Easy" and "I Just Found Out About Love" followed, and both found her and the trio in good form.

The next song was Johnny Mandel's "A Time For Love", the first song to venture into her ballad zone, and for the first time, there was a tentativeness between herself and the rhythm section — micro missteps in that essential trust between accompanists and singer. If I weren't attuned on that level, it would have passed unnoticed, and I doubt that any in the audience (that included Ed Bradley) noticed or cared. It was lovely and satisfying.

"Fever" was next, and the familiar vamp was infectious and right. Shirley was sexy, intelligent, and playful, breaking herself up at one point.

"Yesterday" was a high point, a revelation about a song you thought you knew. "Take It Easy" was a bluesy 12/8. She dedicated it to someone present and asked for the lights to be lowered. "That Old Devil Called Love," another signature song, found the rhythm section uneasy, and "Our Love is Here To Stay," which started off in that delicious Miles Davis two, picked up tempo noticeably, as it switched to four. She was fine and unhurried.

"Here's to Life" was, of course, the climax of the set. This is not an easy song to sing. Joe Williams, who I worked with and loved, was always uncomfortable singing "Here's to Life," trying to emulate Shirley's tempo and feel. She lives in that place, understanding that rubato is not the absence of tempo, but always has the tempo as a center, no matter how elastic her interpretation might be. (Ray Charles said the same thing about himself, as quoted by his conductor in the AF of M Local 47 obituary). A lovely reading, with exquisite accompanying from Mr. Mesterhazy.

We were offered the opportunity to stay for the second set, which we accepted. A couple of new songs were especially outstanding: "A Beautiful Friendship," on which she absolutely highlighted the lyrics; "In The Dark," phrasing the blues like Miles; "I've Got The World On A String," "But Beautiful," and of course a reprise of "Here's To Life."

Shirley Horn got my vote, and has my vote, for the best female Jazz Vocalist in 2004. Her art springs from the source, wherever and whatever that is.


Sy Johnson, writer, photographer, editor and musician, sings a pretty mean ballad himself. Shirley Horn is back at Le Jazz Au Bar for Christmas week, 2004. -- Ed.


C o m m e n t s

Jazz Master Shirley Horn 1 of 1
Howard December 14, 04

Shirley Horn also got the votes of the National Endowment of the Arts, which named her a Jazz Master, among those who will be presented with their honors at IAJE in Long Beach in January. Congratulations, Ms. Horn -- keep singing, we'll keep listening.

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