Wooing jazz listeners with thrillingly intimate deliveries of standards and surprises for over three decades, Shirley Horn secured a spot high in the jazz pantheon long before she died last month. Not only a superb singer, she was also an excellent pianist who prefered to accompany herself and did so once she'd gotten it through record producers' heads that that format allowed her to communicate best with her audiences.
This compilation of her best performances on Verve, the label that she'd been on since 1987 and that revived her career after she'd spent years in semi-retirement raising her family, was put together before her death last month at age 71, and her input helped determine the selected tracks. Though Horn was most noted as a ballad singer who excelled at slow tempos, as demonstrated definitively on the title song, compiler Ken Druker has wisely picked and sequenced to provide variety -- of tempo, instrumentation, and even era, reaching back to 1963 for "The Great City," issued by Mercury (now also owned by Universal).
You think Diana Krall is a sultry singer? She learned it from Horn, an acknowledged influence/model (Krall picked the tracks on Verve's previous Horn best-of and wrote the liner notes). Horn even makes "Fever" sound sincerely seductive rather than cartoonishly campy. Of course, "You Won't Forget Me," with Miles Davis contributing gorgeous muted trumpet, was a must to include. It's the title track of Horn's breakout album, when the commercial promise seen in 1960 when Davis, knocked out by her talent, coaxed her up from her native Washington D.C. to open for his group at the Village Vanguard, was finally fulfilled. One of the missteps of But Beautiful is that it includes nothing from I Remember Miles, her tribute after Davis's death; no portrait of Horn can truly be definitive without her amazing reading of "My Man's Gone Now." Davis and Horn shared the ability to make time stand still.
There could be fewer selections from Here's to Life; three cuts with Johnny Mandel's bland orchestral arrangements is two too many -- the title track's best, mildly spiced by a French horn solo, whereas Wynton Marsalis's solo on Mandel's generic ballad "A Time for Love" is ho-hum. Conversely, Light Out of Darkness, an album of Ray Charles songs, should've been mined more deeply: "You Don't Know Me" is a moving performance, presumably (and justifiably) included as a rare example of her organ playing, but atypical of its source; too bad "Just a Little Lovin'" and "Drown in My Own Tears" weren't also included. And oddly, nothing's selected from Horn's luscious 2000 release You're My Thrill. These quibbles aside, and ignoring that 14 tracks/63 minutes isn't really enough for an album that lists for $18.97, the programming is pretty astute, including the favorites "I Just Found Out About Love," "Come Dance with Me," and "Nice 'n' 'Easy."
But what really sets this disc apart from previous Horn best-ofs are three new tracks recorded this January during a stand at a New York club. Horn had been in poor health for awhile and had even needed to stop accompanying herself at one point, but she was back at the piano for this last hurrah. If her diction is a bit slurred, well, that's easy to forgive in return for one last experience of her sly phrasing and warm voice. For a repertoire surprise, there's the mildly risque blues "Jelly, Jelly" (Billy Eckstine & Earl Hines), with trumpeter/labelmate Roy Hargrove (who previously worked with her on I Remember Miles, longtime friend/tenor saxophonist Buck Hill, and guitarist George Mesterhazy sitting in. It's down to her usual trio for "Loads of Love," and then Hargrove returns for a spritely, swinging romp through "I Didn't Know What Time It Was." Aptly, the last sounds we hear are the audience's applause and Horn's laughter and "I love you." Directed at Hargrove, perhaps, at the time, but now it sounds like a goodbye to her fans. Anybody who is a fan will want this disc just for those three additions to her discography; anybody who isn't a fan yet can certainly count on this disc for conversion, regardless of my minor complaints above. - Steve Holtje
Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based former editor of Creem Magazine and CDNow.com, editor of the acclaimed MusicHound Jazz: The Essential Album Guide, and contributor to The Big Takeover, Early Music America, and many other hip periodicals. He is a buyer at Sound Fix, a hot new record store in Williamsburg.