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The Innate Tempo Of Shirley Horn

By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 22, 2005

No one mined the depths of a lyric the way Shirley Horn did, with a whispery voice that conjured cashmere and cognac. You could lose yourself -- you couldn't not lose yourself -- as the lifelong Washingtonian's dusky alto crawled unhurriedly through time-tested standards and rediscovered treasures, tapestries of song embroidered with her own crisp chords and subtly spun piano filigrees.

Horn's trademark: exquisitely slow tempo and sensitively savored lyric, effortlessly melded. Heart and soul expressed at a piano bench.

Horn, who died Thursday night at 71 after a long illness, could swing a tune with the best of them, and often surprised fans when she did, but that approach simply didn't fit her temperament. Instead, Horn did ballads and cool, understated ruminations better than anyone except her first champion, mentor and lifelong friend, trumpeter Miles Davis. Both were masters of silence and anticipation, but even Davis teased Horn about her pacing. "You do 'em awful slow!" he once said.

Indicating the level of respect Davis had for Horn, the legend, then ailing, accompanied her on the title track of the 1990 album "You Won't Forget Me," the first time he'd recorded with a vocalist in four decades, and Davis did so in the long-abandoned lyrical style he'd defined in the '50s, shortly before he first discovered her. The two were talking about collaborating on an all-ballad album when Davis died the following year. Horn won her only Grammy for 1998's "I Remember Miles," dedicated to Davis.

Another sign of respect came from the great pianist Ahmad Jamal, who accompanied Horn on her penultimate album, 2003's "May the Music Never End." Jamal, one of Horn's early inspirations and models, and himself a master of minimalism, had, in his 55 years of recording, never accompanied a vocalist. But for the first time in her career, Horn was unable to accompany herself on record, the result of losing her right foot to complications from diabetes. It was a significant change, denying Horn use of her piano's expression pedal for controlling the instrument's sustain and quiet features that so defined her sound.

The last few years had been rough on Horn, as she dealt with arthritis and underwent chemotherapy for breast cancer. In June Horn suffered a stroke and had been hospitalized since.

Several years earlier, Horn had been forced to abandon the security of her piano bench and rethink her approach after her voice and piano could no longer be intimate extensions of each other. Last December, just before a brief appearance at a Kennedy Center concert honoring her, Horn seemed weary but as quietly determined as ever, insisting: "I've tried to keep things as level as possible through this whole thing. I'm cool. I know what I have to do: I'm never going to give up the piano, I'm never going to stop singing till God says, 'I called your number.' "

Horn was at times reflective, at times wry, and on occasion caustic and cantankerous. She expressed frustration with the music business, particularly that such pianist-singers as Norah Jones and Diana Krall didn't acknowledge her as the influence she clearly heard herself to be. Motoring around her house in a wheelchair dubbed "the Cadillac" (the fancier "Jaguar" was reserved for concerts), Horn would proudly point to assorted honors, including last year's Jazz Master award from the National Endowment for the Arts. But she also seemed frustrated, reduced to performing only a concert or two a month, backed by pianist George Mesterhazy. "I can't get into the music," she said. "I just get lost."

In recent concerts, she managed to find both humor and pathos singing Paul McCartney's "Yesterday," lending multiple meanings to the line "I'm not half the girl I used to be."

So much about Shirley Horn was glacially slow, from her delivery of a song to the acclamation that came late in her career. You can't really make time stand still, but Horn managed an approximation, insisting that ballads were meant to be played slow, the better to understand the power of the story being told and the emotion of the lyric under exploration.

Horn started studying piano and composition at Howard University's School of Music when she was 12, with dreams of a career in classical music. But the realities of racism in the '40s precluded that possibility, and by the late '40s she'd become immersed in the thriving jazz scene around 14th and U streets NW. Debussy and Rachmaninoff gave way to Oscar Peterson, Wynton Kelly, Erroll Garner and Jamal. The girl piano player began to make an impression in local clubs, but even after forming her first trio in 1954, Horn was not one to advance herself.

In fact, that Horn came to sing at all was part accident -- a patron bribed her to sing "Melancholy Baby" -- and part pragmatism: A club owner gave Horn a raise on the condition that she keep singing.

That Miles Davis became a fan via Horn's 1960 debut album, "Embers and Ashes," was part miracle: few copies were manufactured and they were hard to find. Yet Davis managed to and became smitten, playing it so much at home that his kids could sing along to it. A year later, he invited Horn to open for him at the Village Vanguard, though that opportunity almost passed. When he called her and made the offer, Horn didn't believe it was really Davis. She hung up. But Davis sent her a train ticket to New York, and she went.

It could have been a breakthrough moment, but in the end, it was only a moment. Quincy Jones, who was in the opening-night crowd, would produce a pair of Horn albums in the early '60s but miscast her as a stand-up singer, denying her the comfort of accompanying herself in the trio format in which she was so adept. "Nobody knows how to play for me except me," she would complain. "I need to hear my own chords and set my own tempo."

Wider recognition didn't arrive until 1986, when she signed with Verve and began a string of critically acclaimed albums that garnered nine straight Grammy nominations.

Horn never pursued a career with the single-mindedness of such peers as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae or Betty Carter -- she simply wasn't as driven or hard-nosed or forceful. But Horn's records drew stellar guests, and she performed around the world as her health allowed. In the end, Shirley Horn's life was much like her song: She got as much music as possible out of every precious note, and in so doing made each note that much more precious.

Last December, looking back on her life, Horn suggested that she never had a choice in the matter: "I think when I was born, it's like God said, 'Music!,' and that was it. All my life, that's all I knew. It's in me, it's jammed up and it's got to come out."

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