Despite a January eternity of gray days, you heard it here first: There will be sunshine in East Lansing all of this week.
Ebullient, inspirational vocalist Jazzmeia (pronounced “jazz-ME-ah”) Horn emits radiant beams in all directions, from traditional gospel, blues and straight-ahead jazz to spoken word, neo-soul, hip-hop and beyond.
At her core is a mastery of lyric interpretation and nonverbal artistry in the tradition of jazz icons like Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. But with three Grammy-nominated albums behind her, she’s already taken that tradition into new realms of expression.
The minute she called City Pulse to talk about her residency this week at Michigan State University Jazz Studies, the sun came out. A half-hour later, they were both elsewhere.
“I’ll bring the sun with me, how about that?” she promised.
A Friday (Feb. 9) concert with MSU’s jazz nonets will wrap up the residency. Along with the sunshine, Horn will bring arrangements from her growing body of original music, including her latest album, “Dear Love.”
The story behind the making of “Dear Love” vies with the music itself in inspirational power.
In 2020, pandemic or no pandemic, Horn was on the rise — and in no mood to compromise her vision. In 2015, she won the high-profile Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz International Vocals Competition and snagged a plum three-album contract with the prestigious Concord Records.
Her first album, 2017’s “A Social Call,” pumped new life into classic jazz, gospel and neo-soul tunes and mixed celebration with social commentary, earning a Grammy nomination. Her second album, 2019’s “Love & Liberation,” upped the ante by featuring eight original compositions and was again nominated for a Grammy.
She was determined to take a third big step and bring her unique vision to a big-band setting, but she ran into a wall.
“The record company told me they didn’t have the budget for a big-band project,” she said.
The plum deal with Concord shriveled into a prune. Horn hired a lawyer to extricate her from it.
“Companies are in business,” she said. “They either don’t have the budget or don’t want to spend the budget.”
She wrote and self-published a book, “Strive From Within: The Jazzmeia Horn Approach.” With chapter titles like “Sing Your Own Song” and “My Stage Is My Altar,” she offers practical advice on singing, shares her own experience as a woman in a male-dominated industry and weaves together multiple threads of knowledge and expertise.
Book sales took off around the world. More than 300 people asked Horn for private lessons.
To make a long story short, she set up an online course, started her own label and made the record she wanted to make: “Dear Love,” with Jazzmeia Horn and Her Noble Force. Of course, it was nominated for a Grammy.
By now, Horn fans know better than to ask questions. Just press play, open your ears and your mind and let her take control.
“Let Us (Take Our Time),” a standout track from “Dear Love,” decelerates the velvety, baritone-sax-soaked saunter of big-band icon Count Basie into a suspended moment in the sun.
Underneath the tune’s easygoing tempo is an almost radical message, at least in 2024. The song imagines two lovers untethering themselves from a demanding world and reclaiming their lives.
“Taking time doesn’t necessarily mean slowing down,” Horn said. “It means pay attention, focus. It means to take back your time away from social media, to take back your mind from things people are telling you to do. You poke at the phone, and they’re telling you what to buy, how to dress, what to watch, who to be. I want to make that message relatable, no matter what your journey is.”
“Where We Are” is a tender, inspirational anthem, a limpid well that surges with a gospel undertow.
Both tracks have spoken-word segments in which Horn lays out a determined, confident manifesto of self-affirmation and love.
Horn’s musical journey began before she was born. She got her unique name from her grandmother, who wanted to sing jazz and blues but couldn’t because she was the organist at the Golden Chain Missionary Baptist Church in southeast Dallas, where Horn’s grandfather was pastor.
Horn’s grandmother was bound to the church’s traditionalist approach, but she planted a seed for some spectacular future developments by naming her granddaughter Jazzmeia, with the stress on the middle syllable, pronounced “me.”
Among Horn’s early idols was 2004 “American Idol” winner Fantasia Barrino. Horn sang Barrino’s arrangement of “Summertime” at her audition for Dallas’ Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. While at the school, one of Horn’s instructors was Roger Boykin, a multi-instrumentalist, radio DJ and all-around pillar of the Dallas jazz scene.
Boykin gave Horn a selection of jazz vocal CDs to check out. She became so obsessed with Sarah Vaughan that she learned every song Vaughan recorded by heart. After a while, she realized imitation could be taken too far, and she had her own story to tell.
“I think there’s enough room for everybody on this planet,” she said. “Everybody has their purpose. If you walk in that purpose, doing what you love to do and not worrying about what others think of you, you’ll do pretty well.”
In the 21st century, jazz has surprised many doomsayers by blending in thousands of glorious shades with other musical realms, from hip-hop vigor to modern classical rigor.
“It’s a beautiful time to be a musician,” Horn said. “It’s a beautiful time to be alive, period, because there’s so much happening. People are becoming independent artists. Educators are branching out and doing projects with musicians all over the world.”
Horn said she’ll bring a “plethora” of tunes and arrangements from all three of her albums for the MSU nonets to play Friday. She also plans to bring some that have not yet been recorded.
Horn has known MSU Jazz Studies director Rodney Whitaker since 2015, when Whitaker played bass in the rhythm section at her Thelonious Monk Institute competition victory. (You can check out this stunning performance on YouTube.)
“We go way back,” Horn said. “He didn’t really know me, but he was kind of like an uncle then. He was very honest with me about my creativity. He was proud of me. He tried to help me, and he really looked out for me.”
She also watched with admiration as Whitaker conjured a strong and vibrant jazz community in the gray flatness of mid-Michigan.
“I hope to be a part of that community someday,” she said.
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