Jazzmeia Horn is just beginning to make her voice heard
From the first track of Jazzmeia Horn’s 2017 “A Social Call,” it’s not difficult to see why she won the 2015 Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocal Competition. On that cut — jazz vocal deity Betty Carter’s “Tight”— you can hear within a few bars that Horn’s voice has range and heft and a warm, grainy character. She tackles the intricacies of the uptempo rhythmic steeplechase with unruffled aplomb. She knows how to land on a syllable and make it count in a way that animates an entire lyric. And when her phrasing spins off from the lyrics into effusive scatting, with the occasional trill or yodel, it is, as Carter herself proclaimed about scatting, “not nonsense” — it’s the ineffable meaning beyond words.
Horn, 28, first played Boston in one of the Celebrity Series’ Stave Sessions last year at this time. On Thursday, she plays the Gardner Museum’s RISE series, with Dorchester rapper Latrell James opening.
Aside from prize-winning jazz technique (she also won the 2013 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition), Horn has a wide-ranging sensibility. On “A Social Call,” the Dallas-born singer assays R&B like Norman Whitfield’s “I’m Going Down” and the Stylistics’ “People Make the World Go Round.” She brings her early church-music experience to the gospel standard “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as well as the spiritual “Wade in the Water.” The former segues to the Bobby Timmons hard-bop standard “Moanin,’ ” while the latter is part of a medley, with Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue” (with lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr.) and Horn’s spoken-word “Eye See You.”
The medley crystalizes the themes of the album — a “social call” (echoed in the Gigi Gryce-Jon Hendricks tune of that name), which can mean a night on the town or, as Horn writes in the liner notes, “the social issues that are alive today.” An intricate arrangement, it moves from African percussion and wordless vocal improvisation to the hard-bop Santamaria theme, to a spoken-word section of bearing witness (amid police sirens and crowd noise), and the consolation of the concluding spiritual.
The “I’m Going Down” finale gives “A Social Call” the satisfying arc of a dramatic narrative, from that jazz-swing curtain raiser through ballad tenderness (a lovely version of Jimmy Rowles’s “The Peacocks,” with Norma Winstone’s lyrics), the emotional extremes of the “Afro Blue” medley, and R&B affirmation. It has a concept-album’s thematic unity and the pacing of a satisfying live concert.
When I reach Horn on the phone in New York, she says that her interpretive skills and facility with lyrics are based in her emphasis on storytelling. “Generally, I just try to keep it very basic and do a storytelling theme. Whatever the lyrics are, I just think of a story in my life that pertains to the music or the story that the lyricist wrote.”
That connection informs her choice of standards. On “A Social Call,” “the stories matched my life. I always try to find stories that I can tell naturally. I love doing that because then I’m being true to the art, but also being true to myself and true to my audience.”
For a long time she says, “I didn’t sing the song ‘Lush Life,’ because I had never drunk alcohol, and I didn’t understand what that meant. I didn’t go into clubs or bars, so I didn’t understand the ‘lush life,’ so I wouldn’t sing it.”
Horn’s next album will include more of her poetry, such as listeners got a taste of with “Eye See You,” and similar wordplay — in that case “I” representing the physical body, and “eye” representing consciousness.
“I’m choosing the conscious realm to see you, I’m choosing to see you with my ‘third eye.’ ” She relates her poetry to black speech. “In the black community we have a tendency to say ‘I feel you’ a lot, because it honors a person more than ‘I see you’ or ‘I understand you.’ We don’t ‘understand’ people, we don’t stand under people, we stand with them.” It’s similar, she says, to saying “I be happy.”
“People will say that’s grammatically incorrect. For me, it isn’t, because ‘I be happy’ is a way of being. . . . I’m not speaking English when I create poetry, I’m not thinking about grammar so much as I’m thinking about translating the feeling of my soul.”
Due for a summer release, the new album will include about a dozen of her own songs as well as one by Rachelle Ferrell and another by Jon Hendricks.
“‘A Social Call’ was just to introduce my audience to my voice and my sound and my storytelling capabilities, whereas the new album will be introducing [people] to my entire self, and not just someone else’s compositions. It will be my compositions and the complete story of my artistry.”
With Latrell James
At Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, March 28 at 7 p.m. Tickets $15-$27, 617-278-5156, www.gardnermuseum.org