It's a curious and powerful thing, the way Shirley Horn's sultry voice and seductive piano get under your skin, the way they hold musicians and listeners alike in thrall. Miles Davis knows the feeling. Thirty years ago, after hearing Horn's album "Embers and Ashes," the trumpeter insisted on Horn as his opening act when he appeared at New York's Village Vanguard.
Now if there's one thing that Davis made painfully clear in his recent and brutally frank autobiography, it's that he has no interest in reliving the past. He's not exactly one to wallow in sentimentality. And yet here he is, no particular fan of mainstream jazz these days, popping up on Horn's marvelous new album, the aptly titled "You Won't Forget Me," along with recent converts Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Once you're smitten with Horn's music, it would seem, that's pretty much that.
No doubt Horn's record label, Polygram, will make the most of the fact that Davis and the Marsalises have joined forces here (though not on the same tracks), and that the album's guest list also includes Horn's longtime friend (and fellow Washingtonian) Buck Hill on tenor saxophone, and the tasteful and versatile Toots Thielemans on harmonica and guitar. But it's not knocking Horn's guests in any way to point out that perhaps the best thing that can be said of their contributions is that they are almost incidental to the album's charms. Strip away the brass, reeds and guitar, and you still have a glowing collection of pop standards, each interpreted with extraordinary feeling and finesse.
That's because Horn is in control, calling the shots. Working primarily with her own trio mates, bassist Charles Ables and drummer Steve Williams, and briefly with bassist Buster Williams and drummer Billy Hart, she's free to set her own tempos and forge the seamless blend of voice and piano that's always distinguished her best work. Indeed, the album's opening track, a tender and exquisitely spare arrangement of "His Is the Only Music That Makes Me Dance," illustrates just how little support Horn needs to create a mesmerizing effect. As she artfully shifts the emphasis from voice to piano, the expression "from the sublime to the meticulous" keeps coming to mind.
Actually, that tune is the first half of a medley that segues into a buoyant "Come Dance With Me," and it underscores what Horn once told her manager, producer and biographer, Joel E. Siegel: "For me, a song should either swing hard or be very mellow -- nothing in between."
As it turns out, mellow is just the word to describe Horn's collaborations with the Marsalises and Davis. Wynton is the first to make his presence known, adding insinuating fills and a languid chorus to "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying." (Horn, incidentally, recently made her acting debut with Wynton, performing with his band in the Jon Amiel film "Tune in Tomorrow." She also appears on the Columbia soundtrack, another sign of her increasing popularity and visibility.) Branford takes a similarly earthy approach to Horn's subdued reading of "It Had to Be You," his tenor sounding far more breathy than usual.
As for Davis, he contributes his familiar glinting tone to the title track in a relaxed way that underlines the affection he and the singer have for blues and concise, deliberate phrasing. The combination of Thielemans's chromatic harmonica and softly amplified guitar also emphasizes the soulful intimacy of Horn's delivery, while Hill's full-bodied tenor sax tone adds a vibrant kick to the hopelessly lovestruck "Foolin' Myself."
Even so, the trio arrangements of "If You Go" and other romantic musings again prove that Horn doesn't need to rely on a lot of outside help. Her talent is wonderfully self-contained.
Shirley Horn Reissues Apparently that was less evident to record producers 30 years ago than it is today. Mercury-Polygram has just released a single CD consisting of two albums that Horn recorded for Mercury in the early '60s: "Loads of Love" and the Quincy Jones-produced "Shirley Horn with Horns." The original vinyl albums have long since become collector's items, and for good reason. Horn's voice clearly lacks the emotional depth and appealing edge it later developed, but it's still capable of casting a potent spell when the arrangements suit her delivery.
Unfortunately, that wasn't always the case on these recordings. Many of the Jones-produced tracks are marred by intrusive horns or unflattering piano accompaniments. (For some inexplicable reason, Horn wasn't allowed to play piano on either session.) "Loads of Love" is by far the more consistent and enjoyable of the two albums. It features some lovely string-swept ballads and a top-notch cast that includes saxophonists Gerry Mulligan, Al Cohn and Frank Wess. It too, though, is occasionally undermined by arrangements that seemed to have been unilaterally imposed on the singer.
Buck Hill: 'Capital Hill' Horn's frequent collaborator Buck Hill has also released a new album, "Capital Hill" (Muse), doubtless the first recording ever made by a world-class jazz saxophonist that contains a version of "Hail to the Redskins." That's probably just as well, of course, but like Sonny Rollins racing through "There's No Business Like Show Business," Hill has a rollicking good time of it. He plays the melody just long enough to establish his hometown allegiances, then rushes forward with the kind of hard-nosed, headlong momentum that John Riggins would admire.
Rollins, by the way, is represented by an invigorating arrangement of his "Tenor Madness," another track that reveals Hill's explosive force. Yet overall what really sets the album apart are the ballads -- mood pieces thoughtfully sustained by pianist Barry Harris, bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Freddie Waits. In particular, the Gershwin standard "Someone to Watch Over Me" and Billy Strayhorn's melancholy refrain "Chelsea Bridge," each equipped with an elegantly ascending melody, take on a noir-ish beauty thanks to Hill's resonant tone and thoroughly romantic interpretations.