The art of joyous improvisation
by arwulf arwulf
From the June, 2018 issue
America's fastest rising young jazz vocalist was born in DeSoto, Texas, south of Dallas, in 1991. There was talk of naming her Jasmine, but her grandmother, a gospel pianist with an affinity for jazz, suggested Jazzmeia. Both names seem right for the woman who has achieved worldwide recognition as a skilled and imaginative improviser. Her presence and persona mingle bubbling creativity with the sweet clarity of the night-blooming jasmine vine.
Jazzmeia Horn makes her own clothes, which reflect her ancestral African heritage, and wears them with elegance. She can sing a Yoruba chant with disarming perfection and is proficient at playing the djembe. She and her husband, South African trumpeter Lesedi Ntsane, have named their two daughters after Egyptian goddesses.
In 2015, she won the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition by juxtaposing two of Monk's most unusually structured compositions. The pianist played "Evidence" while her voice swirled over "Four in One," and they ended by swapping themes. This required courage and ingenuity. "Evidence" is an eccentric excursion along an irregular garden path with nearly half of the paving stones missing. "Four in One," a nutty line with as many as fifteen notes to the bar, wriggles like a baby snake coursing through that same garden. Horn proved that the two melodies can coexist in the same time frame. Her ability to improvise joyously in the middle of it all still knocks me out every time I watch the online video of that award-winning performance.
Improvisation is both an inherent survival skill and a highly evolved form of artistic maneuverability. To improvise is to build on what exists, spontaneously reinventing one's reality, moment by moment. Horn was inspired to follow her own path into jazz after hearing Sarah Vaughan's masterpiece of scat improvisation, "Shulie-a-bop." Much of her freewheeling approach and onstage demeanor, including a knack for artful gesticulation, embodies the potent influence of Betty Carter.
Another foremother whose legacy she carries is Nina Simone, who spoke of the artist's duty to reflect the times in which we live. An outspoken social activist and conscientious vegetarian, Horn incorporates her worldview into the music that has become her way of life. "What's out in the mainstream is not really bringing us peace," she told an interviewer from Jazz Times. "That's what I'm reaching toward with my music: peace, love, and joy."
The Ann Arbor Summer Festival brings Jazzmeia Horn and her ensemble to the Power Center on June 28.
[Originally published in June, 2018.]
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