Monday, October 24, 2005

Shirley Horn's Influence

New York on Sunday
Big city's taking a nap
Slow down, it's Sunday
Life's a ball, let it fall right into your lap

Earlier I linked to the New York Times obituary of Shirley Horn, but it's the Washington Post that really has the goods, with a jazzhead's take on Horn's music by Richard Harrington.

Horn's trademark, Harrington points out, is her slowness:

Horn, who died Thursday night at 71 after a long illness, could swing a tune with the best of them, and often surprised fans when she did, but that approach simply didn't fit her temperament. Instead, Horn did ballads and cool, understated ruminations better than anyone except her first champion, mentor and lifelong friend, trumpeter Miles Davis. Both were masters of silence and anticipation, but even Davis teased Horn about her pacing. "You do 'em awful slow!" he once said.

Slowed down, Horn songs like "Here's to life" and "Beautiful love" sound strangely dissociated: as if she's musing on something personal -- but maybe a little disconnected -- as she's singing.

The Times talks about her ability to boil a song down to the bare melody, but I don't know if that's quite it. Horn sings so slow that the listener doesn't 'hold' melody in the usual way. You're not being carried by a catchy tempo, so you're always slightly off-balance, anticipating the next phrase. Slowness intensifies the drama in the song, which sometimes gets too intense (though it never crosses over into melodrama).

But Shirley Horn isn't just going for drama; she's also interested in a minimalism that does something else entirely. In the space between jazz and the blues, Horn seems to always know what her voice can do as an instrument. So she plays it distant, like a slow trumpet riff in a minor key. Her last name, one feels, cannot be an accident.

The best way to explain Shirley Horn's style is to compare her version of "Peel me a grape" to Diana Krall's. Krall is a contemporary cocktail party staple; her version "Peel me a grape" is so popular, people might not know that other versions exist. Krall does it fast and punchy, like a Cole Porter song. She announces her (impressive) vocal skills at every step -- showbiz all the way. It's as if she's saying: listen to this and be impressed! And most of the time, one walks away duly impressed.

But sometimes one wants something a little smaller and less polished. Shirley Horn does "Peel me a grape" with no Showbiz (or showmanship) in her voice. She also sings at about half-speed, and is languorous and contemplative where Krall is sharp and to-the-point. If you'll allow a dessert metaphor, Horn is no sugar added.

For all that, Diana Krall still owes something to Shirley Horn, for the song itself (if nothing else). Harrington alludes to this as well:

Horn was at times reflective, at times wry, and on occasion caustic and cantankerous. She expressed frustration with the music business, particularly that such pianist-singers as Norah Jones and Diana Krall didn't acknowledge her as the influence she clearly heard herself to be.

Of course, some of this is the usual generational snubbing, and there's also a bit of the sometimes invisible mainstream appropriation of African American music, which will be familiar to anyone who knows the history of popular music here.

You might be able to hear a little snippet of Shirley Horn's "Peel me a grape" at Amazon (sometimes it doesn't work). A sample of Diana Krall's version is here.

Shirley Horn was also on The Connection in 2002; you can listen streaming. Even as recently as three years ago, fighting cancer and some other serious physical ailments, she sounded great.


Blogger girish said...

I remember an awkward moment in a Terry Gross interview when Terry called her voice "small" (she didn't mean to insult--maybe she was going for "intimate" or "whispery") but Horn flinched immediately, saying something like, "I have a big voice when I want to." Also, her piano playing was of a piece with her singing (minimal and subtle), and is less remarked on.

1:30 PM  
Blogger Rob Breymaier said...

Speaking of appropriating African American music. I thought the PBS Rock and Roll documentary established that idea very well. Almost every episode talked about how black musicians were doing something and then some white musicians did it too and got richer. It wasn't done with animosity and probably many people didn't even notice this commentary running through the series. But, the pattern was there in the series and in real life.

11:11 AM  
Blogger in2jazz said...

This is a great article on Shirley Horn. I enjoyed your comparison of Shirley and Diana Krall's renditions of "Peel Me A Grape." I love Shirley's version hands down. This can also be said of their respective versions of "All or Nothing at All." I love Shirley's wry laughter at the end of the song. I truly hope more of Shirley's music is unearthed from the record vaults. May her music never end.

5:40 PM  
Blogger Joared said...

Shirley Horn's "Here's To Life" album is a compilation of stories within a bigger story of life. The title song and her delivery was exactly what has carried me through recovering from my husband's sudden death last year -- a man whose avocation was as a professional jazz musician though he had stopped playing many years ago.

2:53 AM  
Blogger John Comic said...

Who says Diana Krall never acknowledged Shirley Horn as an influence?? Check :

"Krall: I have so many: Shirley Horn is one of my greatest influences."

And this was in like '96 or '97 she said this...

11:34 AM  
Anonymous jazz_bo said...

Re the Krall/Horn connection, I like DK quite a bit, and always thought I heard Bill Evans playing in her vocal style (as well, obviously, as in HER playing.) But the first time I heard "But Beautiful" I realized who Krall was really influenced by...also, in 1999 Verve did a SH in their "ultimate" series for which DK both selected the tunes and wrote some pretty spot on liner notes.

2:13 AM  

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