Sometimes we forget that great singers are also great musicians. Especially in the case of singers, whom we tend to consider above all interpreters of other people’s music due to a cultural defect. We are distracted by their personality and their charm because part of their work as virtuosos is precisely to hide the art, the studio and all the scaffolding behind it.
Few people like the jazz player Shirley Horn (1934-2005) make evident this double nature, that of the singer who is also a musician, composer and virtuoso, and in her case an excellent pianist. Nina Simone was also a great pianist: it is well known that her desire as a girl was to become a classical concert player but, as black, she had to fall back on a career in jazz and soul. Aretha Franklin was an excellent pianist and arranger, but is recognized almost exclusively as a singer. Shirley Horn is one of the few artists to whom this dual nature, that of the jazz pianist and the singer, has always been recognized, by critics and the public. Arranger Johnny Mandel, who had worked with Count Basie, Frank Sinatra, Peggy Lee and Anita O’Day, said she had two heads. Her ability to sing and improvise accompanying herself on the piano was prodigious.
One of the first to notice his talent is, in the early sixties, Miles Davis. Shirley Horn is a very young jazz singer, known locally on the Washington Dc club circuit and has recently recorded her first album, Embers and ashes. One morning, while she is having breakfast at her mother-in-law’s house in North Carolina, the phone rings: there is a gentleman who is looking for her, he claims to be Miles Davis.
Davis, in the early 1960s, is perhaps the most famous jazz musician in the world. One of his albums from 1959, Kind of blue, has revolutionized not only jazz music but also the entire record industry; created an audience that didn’t exist yet and reinvented the very idea of a studio-recorded jazz album. In short, Miles Davis was very famous and even if his voice, hoarse and guttural, is known to all, Shirley Horn does not believe it is him. Do you remember when Pope Francis, in the first months of his pontificate, called home some faithful, apparently chosen at random, to speak to us directly? Here’s to the young Shirley Horn hearing Miles Davis on the phone has that effect: disbelief in front of a miracle.
Miles asks Shirley to pack up and join him in New York: he wants her to open her evenings at the Village Vanguard with her trio. Since then an artistic partnership has begun that would never be interrupted: thanks to those evenings Shirley Horn meets the arranger and producer Quincy Jones (yes, the same gentleman who a geological era later will produce Thriller by Michael Jackson) which will offer her an excellent record deal with Mercury records.
The young Horn is a sponge, she learns a lot from Miles Davis who, despite being known for his misogyny, considers her to all intents and purposes an equal. During those evenings it also happens that Davis asks her to replace his pianist, Wynton Kelly and Shirley Horn becomes in effect a member of the band at a time when instrumental jazz was, essentially, a thing for men. The bond between Shirley Horn and Miles Davis remains very strong. The two have their separate careers but continue to follow each other, more than as friends as musicians.
Miles Davis died in 1991 and for Shirley Horn it was a hard blow: “There is a chasm in my heart, I really loved him”, he commented a few years later, in 1998, in the notes of his commemorative album. I remember Miles. Seven years after the death of his friend and teacher, Horn decides to pay homage to him with an album that tries to reconnect the threads of their musical understanding. An album that puts the two, teacher and pupil, on the same level from the cover: a drawing by Davis that shows them in profile confused in a kiss, as if they were a single two-faced creature.
Shirley Horn doesn’t just take up some standards radically reinterpreted by Miles Davis, such as Summertime e My funny Valentine, but digs into the arrangements, looking for a synthesis between their two different musical personalities. For My man’s gone now, an aria composed by George Gershwin for the opera Porgy and Bess, Horn decides to start from an arrangement that Miles Davis had conceived in the early eighties, the one we can hear in the live We want Miles. Horn was very impressed by that long, almost funk reinterpretation of Gershwin’s classic, and decides to take it up again, but in her own way, with that relaxed look, in which all the edges of the electric Miles Davis of the eighties are always there but are smoothed out, lightened and transformed into elegant arabesques.
There are also re-readings of the songs Miles had heard her do at Village Vanguard and incorporated into her repertoire on the album. Seven steps to heaven from 1963: Basin street blues, I fall in love too easily e Baby won’t you please come home. In his homage to the teacher Shirley Horn not only remembers what she learned from him but also what she was able to pass on to him.
The only piece that has nothing to do with Miles Davis is the splendid This Hotel. “There were four songs that I really wanted to do with Miles,” Horn recalls in the album notes, “and this is one. Inside of me I hear him playing this melody ”.
I remember Miles