No doubt some overseas record executives view America as a place that exports jazz musicians and imports jazz recordings. Another example of this curious balance of trade is a pair of new albums by Washington's Shirley Horn and Buck Hill, recorded live last summer at the Hague, Holland, during the Northsea Jazz Festival.
Jazz is the operative word here--not festival. The thought of a festival summons to mind pictures of milling crowds, loud and often unfocused music. But that's not true of these albums, which were recorded before relatively small and appreciative audiences. And it's particularly not true of Horn's recording "All Night Long" (SteepleChase SCS 1157), for this singer and pianist seem incapable of delivering anything but a warm and intimate performance.
The title of Horn's album may be a bit misleading. It was actually recorded over a three-day period, time that Horn spent working with the tastefully discreet bassist Charles Ables and the sympathetic if occasionally mismatched drummer Billy Hart. This may account for why Horn is in better voice on some of these performances than she is on others. For example, the opening track, which begins as a beautifully low-key version of "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home to," is marred by hoarseness that seems to take the singer by surprise. It probably doesn't help that drummer Billy Hart seems unusually heavy-handed on this tune.
However, this less than auspicious beginning soon gives way to a wonderfully relaxed and virtually seamless series of performances in which Horn deftly uses her limited range to great advantage. The setting is just right: moody, atmospheric, candlelight-soft, shimmering with blues, ballads and Brazilian pieces. The album does not take full inventory of Horn's talent by any means, nor is it likely to pacify those who prefer to hear her sing Ellington rather than Jobim and Porter, nor those who wish to hear her express herself more emphatically, as she is known to do on occasion. Rather, this is a gentle yet moving reminder of what we have missed during the many years Horn went unrecorded.
There are some beautifully reflective essays on love unrequited and otherwise. Jobim's "Meditation" and "How Insensitive" are cause for lingering rumination when Horn sings them; no bossa nova bagatelles for her. Buck Hill's own "Someone Like That in Your Life" is imbued with a similar thoughtfulness, while "Good for Nothin' Joe" and the delightful "Get Rid of Monday" suggest the earthier, brassier side of Horn's personality.
As Quincy Jones pointed out recently, the kind of palpable rapport Roberta Flack establishes with her audience is one of Horn's trademarks. Flack is hardly the only singer Horn recalls--and in point of fact it's the other way around; Flack is indebted to Horn. In Horn's intimate style, there sometimes exists the sensuous phrasing reminiscent of Sarah Vaughan, the airy, often tiny-voiced flights of Morgana King (in both cases unencumbered by the embellishments both these singers favor); on Jobim's "How Insensitive," a hint of Billie Holiday's languid way with a word peaks through.
As a pianist, one who makes particularly effective use of space and silence, Horn's flair for tasteful understatement is one of her most engaging assets. Though this album doesn't document it, she can be an aggressive pianist when it suits her, and even here she's not averse to accenting the lyrics sharply with a well-placed chord. But more than anything else, Horn has mastered the difficult task of smoothly integrating the voice and piano, balancing both instruments in a wonderfuly complimentary fashion. Jazz vocalists, especially those few as gifted as Horn, are a rare breed. One can only hope the door to recording remains wide open for her.
Saxophonist Buck Hill's "Easy to Love" (SteepleChase SCS 1160) also finds Billy Hart on drums along with bassists Wilbur Little and Reuben Brown. In past recordings on SteepleChase, Hill has worked with Kenny Barron on piano, a musician whose fleet and percussive style helped to fan Hill's incendiary choruses. Brown, on the other hand, favors a more lyrical approach, and his playing is less adventurous. His choruses on both Cole Porter's "You'd Be So Easy to Love" and on his own "Little Face" are almost mirror images of the thematic improvisations Hill unfolds earlier in the piece.
This is to be expected in a live concert setting, and Brown and Hill often work well together, but they never quite reach the inspired level of collaboration found on Hill's last two recordings. Nonetheless, Hill still boasts that marvelously voluminous and virile tone, soaring through curving improvisations with enormous power and precise control. One of the album's highlights, and an especially vigorous workout for both Hill and Brown, is Hill's "Brakes." With its boppish, stop-time melody, it reminds one of something Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk might have collaborated on--until the moment Brown cleverly intervenes with a present-day reminder: a quote from a designer jean jingle.