Shirley Horn is a Washington monument, musically speaking. But outside the Beltway the singer-pianist is, unaccountably, all but unknown, except to the jazz cognoscenti who have made her a cult figure. That situation seems destined to change with the release of "I Thought About You" (Verve 833-235), a superb live recording for her first major label in 20 years, as Horn joins Marlena Shaw, Nina Simone and Joe Williams in Verve's "Vine St. Live" series.
As Horn sings on the buoyant opener, "Something Happens to Me," when she feels something, she makes sure you feel it, too. Voice and piano merge in a warmly enveloping sound, and it's easy to forget you're listening to a record -- just as it sometimes appears Horn has forgotten she's playing before a crowd.
Horn is one of those rare artists whose singing and playing are organically integrated -- it's hard to imagine one without the other. Her nonpareil pianism and effortlessly unerring pitch and phrasing have earned her comparisons to Nat King Cole and late-period Billie Holiday -- jazz critic Whitney Balliett said Horn "sings as if she had healed and rounded that Holiday voice." Here, Horn sounds fresh, youthful, even playful on numbers like "Something Happens" and "The Eagle and Me."
What she does with a familiar song could be called musical cubism, and here she puts the Rodgers and Hart chestnut "Isn't It Romantic" through six uptempo minutes of instrumental de- and re-construction. Horn takes the tune apart, plays with the pieces for a while, then reassembles it into something different, beautiful, but still recognizable.
Horn is backed by longtime accompanists bassist Charles Ables and drummer Steve Williams. The Hollywood sessions were recorded in May, direct to digital two-track, so the nine songs have an extraordinarily immediate presence. But this record is not a substitute for seeing Horn in person. It's a good performance -- say, an A-minus -- but structurally it's an atypical Horn performance, though unpredictability is certainly one of her hallmarks.
For one thing, the album opens with two upbeat numbers -- "Something Happens to Me" and "The Eagle and Me" -- while Horn usually does several slow, simmering instrumentals before she uncloaks her voice. But then, if you own a CD player, you can reprogram the session any way you like. And in fact, the CD version is the best value, as it includes two bonus tracks totaling almost 18 minutes: Frank Loesser's "I Wish I Didn't Love You So" and the 12-minute instrumental "Quiet Nights," the kind of tranquil piano odyssey that only Horn can pilot. While maintaining a firm rhythmic grounding, her piano leaves ethereal colors hovering in the carefully placed silences. The uncanny effect is one of her trademarks, something that's not often captured on record.
Elsewhere, Horn takes things at her usual, unhurried (which is not to say unfocused) pace, including emotionally convincing readings of "I Got It Bad and That Ain't Good" and "Nice 'n' Easy," both of which she imbues with erotic languor. In fact, every song Horn sings bears the evidence of hard-earned experience. One of the highlights is "Estate'," a supremely sensual meditation on the memory of summer, which opens with a slow-moving shadow of hushed chords and Horn's haunting near-whisper. The indelible melody is an Italian song by Bruno Martino and Bruno Brighetti; the artful English lyrics are by Washington film critic Joel Siegel.
"I Thought About You" is not an album you'll quickly know by heart: There are always surprises harbored within Horn's formidable playing. In fact, you might sense that Horn doesn't always know exactly where she's headed herself. But there's not a trace of doubt in her playing, which is at once decisive and intuitive, highly refined and tastily raw.
This artistically accomplished, commercially accessible album should go a long way toward placing Horn in a preeminent position in the jazz pantheon. Verve is reportedly considering bringing some young Brazilian jazz musicians to New York to work with Horn on a studio record.
Joe Williams: 'Every Night' Also new on the "Live at Vine St." roster is Joe Williams, a former singer with the Count Basie Band, whose "Every Night" (Verve 833 236) is an easygoing session of urbane blues with jazz undertones. With a quartet led by pianist Norman Simmons, Williams swings through a loose and lively session that amounts to a tribute to his impressive influences, bookended by two Joe Turner hits -- a jovial, relaxed version of "Shake, Rattle and Roll" and a more aggressive "Roll 'Em Pete." The album's centerpiece is "Everyday (I Have The Blues)," one of Williams' Basie era standards, fused here with Miles Davis' "All Blues" in a nine-minute workout that provides a showcase for the hot, rounded tones of guitarist Henry Johnson.