Shirley Horn has arrived--and not a moment too soon. With an album that has been No. 1 on the national jazz charts for seven weeks, the 57-year-old singer-pianist has reached the place such musicians as Miles Davis felt she should have occupied two or three decades ago.
At the Cinegrill, where she opened Tuesday night, Horn devoted most of the first half hour to a display of her keyboard artistry. She knows how to invest any song with a blues undercurrent, when to hammer out incisive octaves and how to build dynamic tension.
A trio led by a pianist of Horn's caliber should be just that. Instead, she treated her musicians (Steve Williams on drums and Charles Ables on bass) as if they were equal partners. As a result, "Change Partners" and "Hi Fly," which could have been compact five minute piano solos, went on and on as she deferred to the sidemen.
When she began singing, her capacity for extracting every ounce of meaning from a lyric was exquisitely in evidence. There were vocal hints of Carmen McRae (on whose recent album she played piano) and even of Billie Holiday, whose old hit "Fooling Myself" she revived. A certain edge to her sound gives it the unique dimension that has established her as one of today's definitive jazz singers.
She reached far back for some of her selections. In "Baby Won't You Please Come Home," a 1922 hit, she started rubato, slowly easing into tempo. On the line "When you left you broke my heart" you could almost feel the fibrillations. From there she segued into a pleading "Soothe Me."
Horn could benefit by tightening up the act. But whatever the minor flaws, this is an exciting and exceptional talent whose success is richly deserved. She closes Saturday.