Near the midpoint of her second set at the Jazz Standard on Wednesday night, Jazzmeia Horn dove into a sharp new original, “When I Say.” Snapping her fingers in a decisive four-count, she led her band in an expression of indignant demand; for most of the first verse, she sang with one hand planted on a jutting hip.
“You won’t ever have another like me,” Horn sang, in rat-a-tat rhythm. “So I shouldn’t have to beg and plead.” Her scat improvisation, moments later, took off like a rocket: the band, stocked with heavy hitters, seemed to rev up to meet her.
“When I Say” is the first single from Horn’s forthcoming second album, Love and Liberation, due out Aug. 23 on Concord Jazz. The song, premiering here, isn’t about a romantic power struggle. “It was written in the voice of my two daughters,” Horn explained with a smile, adding: “They’re toddlers.” Which means the voice in question is an unreliable, as well as unreasonable, narrator. (“I’m not a child!” goes another line.)
Horn, a winner of both the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Vocal Competition (2015) and the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition (2013), released her debut, A Social Call, two years ago on Concord Jazz. The album brought critical acclaim and no small amount of attention: it received a 2018 Grammy nomination, and Horn brought the house down at the pre-televised concert.
For Love and Liberation, Horn worked again with producer Chris Dunn, and a musical cast that includes pianist Victor Gould and drummer, fellow vocalist, and labelmate Jamison Ross. The album clearly reflects deeper reserves of experience for Horn, who has spent the last couple of years almost perpetually on tour — honing her skills not only as a performer but also as a bandleader, after the example of a prominent role model, Betty Carter.
That assertive character was on full display at the Jazz Standard, where Horn’s quintet had a regular front line: trumpeter Josh Evans and tenor saxophonist Stacey Dillard. At the piano was Keith Brown, and on bass, as on the album, was Ben Williams. The eminent drummer Ralph Peterson, Jr. sounded right at home in the group, buoying Horn’s phrasing with a subtle panache. (A fine younger drummer, Anwar Marshall, subs in from Friday through Sunday.)
Eight of the 12 songs on Love and Liberation are Horn originals, and in addition to “When I Say,” she performed a few of them on Wednesday. “Free Your Mind,” which opens the album, is a snappy exhortation to relinquish negativity and twitchy distraction; “Time,” with a tempo like the slow pendulum of a floor clock, is a sensuous but assertive spoken-word message to a prospective partner. Among the album’s other highlights are a yearning ballad titled “Legs and Arms” and a cautionary swinger called “Out the Window.”
Not surprisingly, the album’s title holds special meaning for Horn. “For me the two go hand in hand and they both describe where I am in my life and career right now,” she tells Ashley Kahn, in a label press release. “An act of love is an act of liberation, and choosing to liberate — oneself or another — is an act of love.”
That notion came into focus toward the end of the late set, when Horn observed that it was Juneteenth — aka Freedom Day, the anniversary of emancipation in her home state of Texas and across the former Confederacy. “Since it is Freedom Day,” she said, “we’re going to sing a little song about freedom.”
What followed was the signature medley that Horn performed at the Grammys: “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also known as the Negro national hymn, into “Moanin’,” a call-and-response anthem recorded by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The band sounded ferocious atop Peterson’s bulldozer shuffle beat, and Horn scatted with cathartic abandon, wheeling around her upper register.
Then she began riffing with the audience. “Raise your hand if you know what Juneteenth is,” she instructed, pausing to survey the results in the room.
“That’s not even half of you,” Horn said, disappointed, as the rhythm section rolled on behind her. “But that’s OK — you’re feeling it right now. That’s Juneteenth.”