At the Leverkusen jazz festival in 1993, Shirley Horn sang “The Shadow of Your Smile” at a drag tempo. Her hands delicately drew sensitive harmony from the piano while bassist Charles Ables and drummer Steve Williams haunted each slow, slow, and slower beat exactly with the leader. It seemed like the whole universe was subservient to Horn’s sultry and smoky voice explaining why it was all over. Audiences at outdoor jazz festivals are not always attentive, but at this moment a few thousand Germans got on exactly the same page, wistfully contemplating the vagaries of romantic love.
Horn ended up as one of the biggest jazz stars of the 1990s, but it took a while for her to get there, although she was always a local celebrity and crucial mentor in her hometown of Washington, D.C. After Miles Davis heard her first 1960 disc Embers and Ashes, he requested her trio to spell his quintet during engagements at the Village Vanguard, told Herbie Hancock to check out her chord voicings, and began playing “I Thought About You.” (Ex-Miles Davis pianists would continue to use Horn as a resource. Much later, when Keith Jarrett recorded “You Won’t Forget Me” in memorial tribute to Davis, Jarrett used Horn’s harmonization from two years earlier, on a track featuring the trumpeter’s final appearance as a sideman.)
From this distance, having mostly heard Horn in later years, Embers and Ashes is rather shocking, a masterpiece from top to bottom. The basic template of her later repertoire is already established: heavy swingers, drop-dead ballads, and moody Latin numbers. Horn’s voice is lighter than it would become, but is still as soulful as Billie Holiday while possessing bell-like pitch. The piano playing is out of the elegant swing of Red Garland and Ahmad Jamal, with dollops of Bobby Timmons’ rough blues. The instrumental “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” is treated seriously as a fresh vehicle for a great trio with Joe Benjamin and Herbie Lovelle, but it’s the vocal numbers that pack unforgettable impact.
Horn did a few more albums in the ’60s but her career seemed to stall out. In 1979 she began afresh with the SteepleChase release A Lazy Afternoon. The rhythm section was Buster Williams and Billy Hart, the engine in Herbie Hancock’s Mwandishi sextet. The deep vibe of this trio hits a high-water mark early on with the opening “I’m Old-Fashioned,” which swings as hard as anything ever has. (Hart regards Horn as an important mentor.) Horn’s comping for herself is forceful and rhythmic, with plenty of upbeats, and each chord is a perfect vertical assemblage of lush harmony. A Lazy Afternoon includes several more swingers, a deconstructed version of the title ballad, and novelty numbers like “New York’s My Home” and “Gra’ma’s Hands.”
New York was not Horn’s home; it was almost confusing for her to sing such a thing. When she signed with Verve in the late ’80s and took her rightful place as a preeminent diva for the era, she brought her D.C. rhythm section of Ables and Williams with her. All the Horn Verve releases are wonderful, a soundtrack to seduction for a generation, but one that offers the band in notably top gear is Close Enough for Love, which has the added bonus of the great D.C. tenor saxophonist Buck Hill on several selections. It’s a high-end production but there’s also an agreeable rawness to the takes: Horn, Ables, Williams, and Hill are all having so much fun playing. Special mention must go to Steve Williams, who always sounded like he was powering a hard-bop quintet, possibly surprising producers who were expecting that a singer known for ballads would naturally have a quiet drummer. The title track was composed by Johnny Mandel for the 1979 movie Agatha. In this definitive rendition, it’s just Horn alone with her piano, giving a mature torch song almost unbearable depth and breadth.
In 1984 the Horn-Ables-Williams trio recorded The Garden of the Blues, a live performance of music by groundbreaking African-American composer Curtis Lewis. After their breakout success, this unit was hired by both Carmen McRae and Toots Thielemans for important 1991 studio dates. McRae’s devastating Sarah – Dedicated to You would be McRae’s last album and uses Horn solely as pianist; Thielemans’ swinging For My Lady includes a Horn vocal on a ravishing “Someone to Watch Over Me.” Both of these albums hold up from an era when there were too many tribute projects with random grab bags of personnel.