June 11, 2004
When Shirley Horn is deep in the groove, it is clear that she is getting used to – and in fact downright enjoying – the singular art of singing, even though the hyphenated role of singer-pianist had been her musical forte for all but this twilight of her stellar career.
Due to medical circumstances, Horn leaves the piano work to others for the most part, yet the groove was there when she opened a two-night run at Scullers in Boston on June 15. Her trio was solid, sometimes even propelling her into faster tempos than longtime listeners may be used to hearing.
Horn’s entrance yielded a standing ovation, as she joined pianist George Mesterhazy, bassist Ed Howard and drummer Steve Williams (her most senior band-mate, with 29 years tenure) on stage.
Over the next 65 minutes, she tackled 11 tunes from her repertoire. The opener, “How Am I to Know?” found Williams’ crackling drum breaks propelling her teasing lyrics. Her knowing and teasing line, “Hey, baby, what’s your hurry” drew laughs throughout the capacity crowd of 200 as she opened “Nice and Easy.” The band segued into a strong blues feel midway through the Horn classic. A similar treatment awaited her rendition of “But Beautiful” late in the set.
Early on, it was quite evident that Horn was enjoying being able to float on the musical cushion provided by her strong trio. Not only has she given Mesterhazy permission to play in his own style, she has encouraged him to do so, rather than mimic the Shirley Horn sound. While the pianist knows Horn’s sound inside-out, there was more of his sound emerging on “I Just Found Out Love (and I Like It).” His keyboard work added more spark and momentum to the tune, which enhanced its joyous buoyancy.
In contrast, Horn’s rendition of “A Time for Love” was as slow as molasses, as she and her audience savored not only each word, but each syllable. This artful treatment was propelled by Williams’ shimmering brushwork.
She opened Lennon and McCartney’s “Yesterday” a capella, the band not joining her – and even then very subtly – until she was well into the tune. Ellington’s “Take Love Easy” led into the contrasting feel of “Fever,” as Horn looked at all facets of love, lust, romance and heartache, as her song choices have done for so many years.
Her playful version of “Just in Time” had the entire house clapping along – in time – before she wound things down with the poignant signature tune “Here’s to Life.”
Speaking of life and what it casts one’s way. Anyone who hasn’t seen Horn in concert since before she lost her lower right leg to diabetes several years ago might wonder if it is odd to hear her not being her own accompanist these days – sort of like Yin without Yang.
Though she has been gradually getting back into the playing routine in some concerts for a song or two through use of a special prosthesis, this was not one of those nights. However, it was simultaneously odd and refreshing to hear someone other than Shirley Horn the pianist playing for Shirley Horn the singer.
Mesterhazy, who has been with her for about two years now, is a versatile mid-career master who deserves far more name recognition. The Horn gig ought to serve him well in that regard, as together they have brought the art of vocals and piano accompaniment to a height not often heard these days. It even invites comparison to the chemistry and understanding shared decades ago by Ella Fitzgerald and Tommy Flanagan.