Coniece Washington sings homage to a legend on “Shades of Shirley Horn”

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Shirley Horn – – for newer or younger jazz fans, her name might be less recognizable. However, vocalist Coniece Washington is working to change that with her latest release, “Shades of Shirley Horn.”

Released in the spring of 2019, “Shades of Shirley Horn” finds Washington singing some of the songs that made Horn a household name for a time. “Shades of Shirley Horn” is a collection of 12 songs that will either remind audiences of Horn’s style and abilities or serve as an introduction to her.

The legend of Shirley Horn

Fans of jazz have heard the name Shirley Horn. The singer kept a relatively low profile and was at least semi-retired in the 1970s, but continued to perform in her local area (Washington DC) until a year before her death. But even a decided lack of touring could not dim the legend of Horn. Her unique phrasing, her lack of vibrato, while maintaining a lush quality, plus her ability to accompany herself on the piano while she sang, all added to the allure of her style.

As if Horn’s music could not speak for itself, she was publicly lauded by Miles Davis in the 1950s. This “endorsement” of sorts allowed Horn to make a more prominent name for herself. It was Horn’s “Embers and Ashes” album that caught the famed trumpeter’s attention.

Before Horn was a professional musician, she was a child prodigy who first studied classical music at Howard University at age 12. She switched to jazz after graduating with a degree in classical music. There is far more to Horn’s story, but the performer passed away in 2005. Washington’s work on “Shades of Shirley Horn” helps to tell Horn’s story and keep her legacy alive.

Coniece Washington’s “Shades of Shirley Horn” style and sound

A native of Trenton, New Jersey, Washington began singing in her grandmother’s church during her formative years. A veteran of the US Army, Washington has also toured Europe and the US singing in various nightclubs. Washington is a trained vocalist who has been a past member of the Washington Performing Arts Society Men & Women of the Gospel Choir. She continues to perform around the Washington D.C. area at a variety of clubs and churches. Washington’s debut CD, “Love Changes” allowed her to win over audiences. Now, with “Shades of Shirley Horn” Washington is poised to share the beauty of Horn’s work, while continuing to cultivate her own audiences.

“Here’s to Life” by Coniece Washington

A gentle, but not reticent, piano motif opens the song. Shortly after the piano begins, poet Seth Washington recites lyrics that hint at the highlights of Horn’s career, including Davis’ support.

Washington’s voice has the classic feel that Horn was known for. In addition, the phrasing that highlights the clever word play of the lyrics is found in Washington’s rendition, too. The philosophical approach to romance builds intimacy with audiences. Washington’s voice is like Horn’s, yet, unique. She sounds in control, and no note is forced. Her voice seems equally comfortable in high and low registers. A listen to Horn’s original and Washington’s version will likely render an appreciation for both.The soundscape develops into shimmery drums and a whisper of bass. It all fits the wise melancholia of the lyrics.

“Get Out of Town” by Coniece Washington

The song begins with a lively upright bass run. The drums hurry in, with a clatter and shimmer and the song’s energy begins to reveal itself right away. There is a classic jazz feel that is established from the first note and audiences are immediately interested in how Washington will bring Horn’s style to life on this song.

The song’s title might seem to indicate a desire for a romantic getaway, but that is not the case. The song is about sending a lover away because the narrator loves him too much. Here, Washington’s voice is as vulnerable-sounding as Horn’s  (possibly because of the higher pitch), but the intelligence is there, too. “Why wish me harm/why not retire to a farm/and be content to charm/ all the birds out the trees…”

When Washington sings, listeners familiar with Horn will have to remind themselves that they are listening to tribute music. Washington’s tone is pretty in the vibrato-less way that Horn’s is. Nothing sounds forced, and that lack of air being pushed so that notes can be reached adds to the overall beauty of her tone.

There are several aspects of “Shades of Shirley Horn” that recommend the recording. One aspect is Washington’s calling attention to the work and career of Horn, and other aspects include Washington’s  own tone, her ability to bring Horn’s classic, yet unique phrasing to life, make “Shades of Shirley Horn” a special recording to experience.

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Dodie Miller-Gould is a native of Fort Wayne, Indiana who lives in New York City where she studies creative nonfiction at Columbia University. She has BA and MA degrees in English from Indiana University-Purdue University, Fort Wayne, and an MFA in Fiction from Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her research interests include popular music and culture, 1920s jazz, and blues, confessional poetry, and the rhetoric of fiction. She has presented at numerous conferences in rhetoric and composition, and creative writing. Her creative works have appeared in Tenth Muse, Apostrophe, The Flying Island, Scavenger's Newsletter and elsewhere. She has won university-based awards for creative work and literary criticism.

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