Jazzmeia Horn takes her throne as the new queen of scat 

Voice as Instrument

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Jazzmeia Horn’s debut album garnered a Grammy nomination, yet outside of the jazz community, she’s not a household name. But everyone in attendance at the Gaillard on Monday night is thinking and talking about Jazzmeia today. Over nearly two hours, she wowed the audience with her rapid-fire vocal improvisations, using her voice as the leading seventh instrument to jam with her talented sextet (including a trio of horns).

That meant a whole lot more than just bopping along — Horn’s vocalizations included tribal yells, upper-register squeaks and animal noises that sounded like a stroll around the zoo. Her microphone was more than a conduit as she ran her fingers up and down the cord, mimicking the valves on a horn. She skillfully and innately adjusted its distance from her mouth to modulate volume. Each scat trance eventually landed on a powerful note, reminding us that she’s far more than a sound effect artist — she’s one of the world’s best jazz singers.

Experimentation comes with risk, however. Some notes come off as shrill, grating screams, but that’s Horn’s intention. She’s not here to make us comfortable, and even teased audience members about falling asleep before her lone ballad.

At 27-years-old, Horn is using her platform to create awareness and spread hope. To introduce the concert’s third song, “People Make the World Go Round,” she made the case that sometimes feeling hatred is the only way to express love. The song then cited a laundry list of the planet’s ills, from private prisons to nuclear waste to GMO seeds. She even mentioned chemtrails.

The closing medley of “Lift Every Voice and Sing/Moanin’” revisited her activist intentions, referencing guns in schools, police brutality, Flint, Michigan’s water crisis (twice), and “spraying our neighborhoods with chemicals and drones.” If she’d lost any listeners with that litany, she brought them back by referencing the Emanuel massacre just across the street, improvising a message to Charleston that concluded by encouraging listeners to consider the less fortunate while eating their dinner. It was meaningful and well intentioned, and all over the place.

Throughout her set, Horn remained loose and expressive. Her African dress and head-tie — complemented by matching Ankh earrings and a pendant on her microphone — recalled her fellow Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts alum Erykah Badu. Her presence was relaxed, perhaps even to a fault. Near the show’s conclusion, she admitted to a “brain fart” while trying to remember the closing song she wanted to play. Likewise, introducing each member of the band five times (including twice in the final number), seemed like a crutch.

She thanked her band for letting her “float and be free, musically,” a perfect description of her role. Horn is clearly the band leader — all eyes follow her as she moves about the stage, contorting her face to match the sounds she’s creating. Still, even with her vibrant presence, Horn struggled to get the older-trending Spoleto audience to sing along during two different songs. It didn’t help that in “East Of the Sun (And West Of the Moon),” the men’s part came in on a half beat, a couple of beats after the women’s part. Even in a presumably jazz-seasoned audience, it was a bit too much for the room to master and embrace. And this was just before she referenced that people born in the ‘50s and ‘60s are old, while audience members likely born in the ‘40s exchanged glances.

Jazzmeia Horn possesses incredible raw talent, a mesmerizing stage presence, and a beautiful, striking appearance. Her improvised scat singing will make her a star. She’s built her reputation around the modern jazz audience, many of whom are the profitable still-buying-CDs, ‘50s-born crowd that made up most of her listeners at the Gaillard. But it also wouldn’t be surprising — or entirely disappointing — to see her cross over and adopt some of pop’s song structure sensibilities. However she continues to mature, Jazzmeia Horn is worth talking about.

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