What does freedom sound like to you? Maybe it sounds something like “Searchin,’” one of several remarkable originals from the singer Jazzmeia Horn. The song begins with a countoff— the brusque snap of fingers, the rolling cadence of Horn’s one, two, one-two…!— and at first blush the sheer speed of it might strike you as a headfake. But she’s not pulling your leg: For just over three minutes, Horn leads her five-piece jazz combo barreling down a swaying highwire, maintaining poise and precision even at breakneck velocity. Clamorous drum fills and the insistent pulse of the upright bass remind you just how close to chaos the whole thing is, but Horn sustains model unflappability; she is clean and clear even as she alternates between crisply-enunciated lyrics and frenzied scatting. It’s singing of such athleticism, an Olympic medal feels just as appropriate as a Grammy; either way, she doesn’t break a sweat.
Not everything on Horn’s exemplary second album, Love and Liberation, is quite so throttling or intense, but much of it seems death-defying somehow; perhaps it has something to do with the unforgivingness of the form itself. Vocal jazz rises and falls by the technical skill and personal charm of the singer, and there’s no studio obfuscation or production jujitsu to temper the high stakes. The jazz singer’s somersaults and calisthenics, her feats of dramatization and interpretation, are done on a bare stage and in broad daylight, and if she stumbles it’s all caught on tape. Yet at a mere 28, Horn doesn’t only master an unyielding format; she finds within it ample space for playfulness and personal expression.
It’s tempting to assume she was born for this, but actually, the singer’s genre bona fides aren’t quite as starcrossed as her name suggests. Horn grew up in the gospel tradition, and her jazz destiny didn’t come knocking until she was in her late teens. An encounter with the Sarah Vaughan songbook sent her deep down the rabbit hole, and like many converts, Horn made up for lost time, immersing herself in the holy writ of singers like Betty Carter and Nancy Wilson.
On Love and Liberation, she boasts high-level technical proficiency, bringing to fruition all the lessons she learned from those vaunted singers of the past: bright countenance, regal bearing, command over the low embers of the blues as well as the cheerful effervescence of swing. It’s an album that more or less plays by the idiom’s established rules: Largely penned by Horn and recorded in warm, analog allure with her regular band, Love and Liberation sounds like it could have been cut at the Village Vanguard in the late 60s, or released on any jazz imprint in the decades sense. There are no obvious feints toward modernity, no fourth-wall-breaking attempts to redefine what a vocal jazz album can be. Yet within a closed system, Horn asserts her right to rearrange the furniture, slap a new coat of paint on the walls, and claim the whole of it as her domain. She’s a freedom-fighter but not an anarchist, and the record is all the more impressive for how it flourishes in symbiosis with her chosen orthodoxy.
You can hear, for example, how she experiments with acceptable speed limits, not just with the blazing momentum of “Searchin’” but also with the metronome pulse of “Time.” Here, the singer pleads with a jittery paramour to slow his roll and give her some room to breath; Horn delivers her lyrics in soft spoken-word, as though leading zen meditation, and the band relaxes into a steady, clockwork gait. It’s not the album’s only track to suggest poetic recitation as a tool in the jazz singer’s toolbox: In “Only You,” a spoken a capella duet, Horn and her drummer Jamison Ross voice two lovers weaving in and out of sync with each other, their criss-crossing lines of dialogue suggestive that harmony isn’t supposed to look like uniformity. It’s a story of romance as two overlapping truths, and a word-picture of what it means to be both an individual and part of a unit.
Jazz is the mouth of the river here, but several songs follow its tributaries: “No More” slinks and growls, a down-and-dirty blues; “Still Tryin’” hollers like gospel but isn’t afraid to let its lyrics get bawdy. Meanwhile, a cover of “Green Eyes,” from Erykah Badu’s unimpeachable classic Mama’s Gun, loses the old-timey winks in the original and instead dives into straight-ahead jazz balladry, the singer surrendering to cascading piano lines from Victor Gould. These songs suggest the virtue in Horn’s roundabout path to jazz singing; a willingness to approach the form reverently while celebrating its porousness.
It’s a fitting aesthetic for songs that assert personal autonomy and individuality amidst personal limitations and external constraints. Many of them voice steely, confident women who insist upon love and romance on their own terms; “No man owns me, I belong to God,” Horn declares on “No More,” pledging her autonomy but not forgetting where it came from. The skittering “Out the Window” reclaims the mean ol’ devil woman trope from the Delta blues; you can hear the simpering smile plastered to Horn’s face when she cheerfully announces that, if push comes to shove, she’s perfectly capable of discarding her decorum and civility real quick. In the ribald yarn “Still Tryin,’” she’s waylaid by a man who’s only interested in one thing; she rebuffs him a few times and ultimately concedes a dance, but it’s pretty clear who’s in control of the situation (“not too fast, now, Johnny/ ‘cause you’re still trying to get in my pants”). The flinty “When I Say,” a preschooler’s power trip, suggests that there are lessons to be learned from kids who know what they want and voice it without inhibition. “You won’t ever have another like me, so I shouldn’t have to beg and plead,” the song goes, an endearing crisscross of pride and petulance.
Amidst these sharp originals there’s just one songbook standard; Horn sings “I Thought of You” to end the album, accompanied only by upright bass, her bubbly scatting as buoyant as a full horn section, her command of molasses drawls and gentle coos as expressive as an orchestra. She sings it because she can; standing on the shoulders of giants, she sounds like nobody but herself.