Award-winning vocalist Jazzmeia Horn announces her ever-expanding talents with the release of her first big-band effort, Dear Love, a recording that brims with the combination of her assured delivery and spoken world segments, deft arrangements and fiery musical ideas. Garnering praise from critics and fans alike, Dear Love is nominated for the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album Grammy Award. While the album functions as a platform for Horn to showcase both her perception of the world and her endlessly unfolding talents, it also granted the composer a setting to expound on personal experiences, shuttling them through a sui generis musical prism.
“‘Where We Are’ really speaks on my history – where my ancestors have been and where we are now,” Horn said about a track filigreed with strings from the new album, which was released September 10, 2021 on the vocalist’s own Empress Legacy Records. “All of our actions now will determine our future, and all of our actions in the past have determined our present. We know that. Based on what we do now, that’s how we create a better future for our children and for future generations. It’s important because not a lot of people think about that. We’ve got global warming and all these other problems because people want to do what they want to do without thinking about the repercussions.”
Elsewhere on Dear Love, Horn swings on an interpretation of classics “He’s My Guy” and “Lover Come Back to Me”; displays her vocal range and ability to summon the emotional content of her writing on the slinky “Let Us”; contemplates purpose on the subtle and intriguing “NIA”; and closes the album with “Where is Freedom!?,” a tune deeply rooted in a vamp that would have suited Nina Simone. Horn said the 15-piece Noble Force ensemble she put together for Dear Love revolved around her regular rhythm section – pianist Keith Brown, bassist Eric Wheeler and drummer Anwar Marshall – which had played the tunes collected here in different arrangements while on the road. Saxophonist Bruce Williams’ leadership in the alto section also was indispensable to the album’s full realization. “Strive,” a stately composition from the record focused upon Horn’s soaring vocal and her ensemble’s plangent horns, finds the bandleader proclaiming determination and power atop a recondite arrangement, expertly navigated by the Noble Force.
“‘Strive’ is my mantra right now, because there’s so much going on in the world,” Horn said. “For me personally, I’m a mom, I’m buying a new house, my children are starting school, there’s paperwork for everything. The pressure is pressing, and I’m like, ‘OK, strive.’ So many people relate to that idea. When I shared the song with a friend who lives in Texas, she was like, ‘I have bills piled up. I just finished college and my student loans are hanging over my head, and my job is not really doing anything for me.’ She said that listening to that song really helped her to get through the day. And that’s what I want for everybody.” Pianist Sullivan Fortner – who’s earned acclaim as a bandleader, as well as a savvy accompanist – has had a front-row view of Horn’s development as an artist. And while Dear Love arrives as an essential artistic statement from the vocalist, after a decade of friendship with the singer, he hears something very familiar.
“She’s always had a very strong personality, a very strong work ethic, and those things are really shining through,” said the pianist, who served as musical director for Dear Love. “She marches to the beat of her own drum; she does what she wants to do. I would say she hasn’t changed drastically [during the years we’ve known each other], there’s just certain things about her that have been enhanced: Her musicality has been enhanced; her knowledge of leading a band has been enhanced; understanding what it is she wants from her musicians; and what she demands of herself.”
The 30-year-old composer initially devised a plan for the recording and delivered the concept to Concord, the imprint that released her pair of previously lauded leader dates. Horn pulled songs from a stack of 50 compositions amassed over time, selected members of her ensemble and looked into the ideal studio setting. But the imprint wasn’t interested, despite the vocalist’s contract calling for a third album.
With experience from her time at the major label, leading her own troupe, as well as previously working with historic European ensembles like Cologne’s WDR Big Band and The Netherlands’ Metropole Orkest, Dear Love came together with the assuredness of a veteran orchestrator.
“I’m a very hands-on type of artist,” Horn said, discussing her time with Concord and what she’d gleaned during her run with the label. “I knew one day, I wasn’t gonna have a record company behind me.” Forging ahead on her own could have proved difficult, given the demands as a newly minted label head and vizier of the grand enterprise. Parallel efforts to publish a book detailing her vocal technique and helping to produce a documentary that followed the making of Dear Love somehow also slotted into Horn’s schedule.
The album, film and book come on the heels of two widely praised long-players, A Social Call and Love and Liberation, which each garnered Grammy nominations in the Best Jazz Vocal Album category. Assessing a live performance around the time her debut was released, The New York Times noted that “she’s possessed of some distinctive tools, all of which were on display: a pinched, sassy tone in the highest register; a fondness for unguarded duets with her bassist… an array of rough, pealing nonverbal sounds that add drama to codas and interludes, hinting at meanings in the music that go beyond what fits
on the page.”
The reaction to Horn’s work shouldn’t be a surprise, though. By the time her first album was released, she’d collected top honors at the 2013 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition and the 2015 Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition.
But Horn’s talents emerged in Dallas, Texas, and blossomed at an arts-focused high school. Through both unfettered determination and inherent skill, the young singer traversed a singular path, raising funds through performance for her eventual matriculation to The New School. Once ensconced in New York, Horn held down a waitstaff position during the first two years of her education, precariously balancing artistic pursuits, the demands of academia and a thankless job.
The following years, residing in New York and touring the world, revealed a restless aesthetic development that’s defined Horn’s still-burgeoning career. And while Dear Love might seem to be the work of an avowed veteran, the bandleader still has more of herself, her music and her ideas to explore. “I tried to figure out how the songs can be in alignment with what’s true to me and what’s true in my reality as a Black woman, but then also be relatable to anyone who’s not part of my culture,” Horn said. “I went through my list of charts and said, ‘OK, which of these songs really speaks to love in multiple ways – love for my community, love for my culture, love for my partner, love for my children, love for myself. Which one of these songs is going to speak on all of those different things?’ These songs are love letters to