Album review…Shirley Horn, “Live at the 4 Queens” (Resonance Records, 2016)

Resonance Records continues its spate of stellar historical albums with a previously unreleased live recording of the late pianist/vocalist Shirley Horn and her long-standing trio, bassist Charles Ables and drummer Steve Williams. The set, recorded at the 4 Queens Hotel in Las Vegas, occurred the day after Horn’s 54th birthday during a year in which she was reemerging on the jazz scene to great acclaim. Like Resonance Record’s other 2016 archival releases by Bill Evans, Sarah Vaughan, Wes Montgomery, Larry Young, the Jones/Lewis Orchestra, and Stan Getz, this Horn record is a welcomed addition to a jazz giant’s discography—all the more because of the extensively research booklet that accompanies the album. With archival photographs; essays on the local scene and Horn’s career; and interviews with vocalist Sheila Jordan, journalist Ted Panken, drummer Steve Williams, and producer Richard Seidel (among others), this work sets the release apart, making a definitive case for Horn’s legacy through her artistry and the high admiration of her peers, colleagues, and friends.

Live at the 4 Queens, Resonance Records, 2016 [1988]. Personnel: Shirley Horn, piano, vocals; Charles Ables, bass; Steve Williams, drums. Tracks: Hi Fly; You’d Be So Nice to Come Home To; Meditation; The Boy from Ipanema; Isn’t It Romantic; Loverman; Something Happens to Me; Just for a Thrill; Blues of Big Scotia. Recorded May 2, 1988, in Las Vegas, Nevada at the 4 Queens Hotel.

After an instrumental opener (Randy Weston’s “Hi-Fly”), Horn and the trio launch into the standard “You’d Be So Nice to Come To.” Right away we’re greeted Shirley’s hard-swinging band: her assured, blues-heavy playing leading a solid rhythm section that coalesced into a fine ensemble after decades of performing together. Horn’s vocal artistry is rooted in refined attention to dynamics and lyrical inflection, with an added richness from the rhythmic tension between her singing and piano accompaniment—managing polyrhythm and gradations of the groove just like the Basie rhythm section did. Horn makes a melody her own with variation, elaboration, and repetition; but somehow we always come away thinking we’ve just heard a definitive rendition of whatever tune she’s run down.

Contrasting takes on two Jobim standards are situated in the middle of set: Horn sets “Meditation” to one of her signature slow tempos. Her honest, longing lyrics in English create large spaces between phrases, even more so because so many of her phrases trail off quickly. These artfully arranged silences contribute to her particularly adept skill at translating Brazilian saudade for US audiences. She shifts Jobim into another mode with a faster version of “The Boy from Ipanema” that approaches samba speeds, but with heavy doses of bluesy scat. Her reverence for Jobim’s repertoire is evidenced not just in her inclusion of these two tunes back-to-back, but the faithfulness with which she performs them, choosing to stay close to the melodies even in her improvisations.

The trio’s main instrumental feature is the Rodgers & Hart standard, “Isn’t it Romantic.” Horn shows more of her piano chops here, including improvisational facility and rich, harmonic language on this uptempo swing. After a dynamic solo—it’s nice to hear her stretch out on piano!—Ables follows with a solo characterized by long passages of walking, which Horn punctuates with Basie-like fills. A tutti shout-chorus with Williams’s fills brings the tune to an exciting end. The two ballads from the set—“Loverman” and “Just for a Thrill”—are quintessential Shirley. Both are supple, beautifully rendered, and supremely—almost unimaginably—slow. Horn’s ability to excel at such deliberate paces is a testament to her mastery of the spaces between the notes, which is surely one of the reasons why Miles Davis advocated for her and her career in such an outspoken fashion. The trio closes out the set with one more shout-blues: “Blues for Big Scotia” swings hard, eliciting waves of applause from both the 4 Queens audience back in ‘88 and all of us hearing it for the first time.

Recently at the National Jazz Museum in Harlem, I had the opportunity to talk about Horn and her artistry during a celebration of Albert Murray’s 100th birthday. I shared my love of her music—my well-worn copy of her 1995 album The Main Ingredient was formative in my jazz education as a teenager—and how its understated qualities have translated somewhat into an under-appreciation for her artistry. For all those who may not yet be assured of Horn’s superior musicianship, surely the work that Resonance Records has accomplished with Live at 4 Queens makes a definitive case for what many of us have long known: the late Shirley Horn and her trio have more than earned their stature among the pantheon of jazz greats. For more, check out the promo video Resonance has released for the album below:

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