Authentic, unpretentious, and engaging: Jazzmeia Horn Live at UKARIA

By Kaya Blum

With the jazz festival season in Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney, and Perth fast approaching, South Australian jazz fans might be feeling a little FOMO. But some of us were lucky — extremely lucky — to see the extraordinary talent of award-winning American singer and songwriter Jazzmeia Horn here in our own backyard.

The Helpmann Academy and the University of Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium of Music have brought the three-times Grammy-nominated artist to Adelaide for workshops with jazz students and two Australian-exclusive performances. The first was held at the stunning UKARIA Cultural Centre on the Mount Barker summit in the Adelaide Hills.

Jazzmeia Horn performing at the UKARIA Cultural Centre | Photo: Daniel Marks

Architecturally designed in collaboration with a world-renowned acoustical engineering team, UKARIA was purpose-built for sound, specifically chamber music. A glass wall behind the performance space provides sweeping views of the surrounding gardens and Mount Barker’s summit. With a seating capacity of 220 and a full house, it was a superb environment for Horn’s exquisite vocals and accompanying four-piece band.

The band was meant to feature Horn’s regular pianist Victor Gould, but a last-minute cancellation put the grand piano in the highly accomplished hands of the Elder Conservatorium’s Head of Jazz, Mark Simeon Ferguson, also a leading composer, arranger, and pianist. He was joined by bassist and composer Dr Lyndon Gray, also a lecturer at the Conservatorium; and rising talent Jackson Mack, a young drummer, composer, and arranger who recently wowed audiences at the Adelaide Jazz Festival’s jazz jam with the Django Rowe Quartet. It’s hard to fathom he’s only in the second year of his degree at the Con.

Jazzmeia Horn performing at the UKARIA Cultural Centre | Photo: Daniel Marks

It was harder still to believe this band had just two rehearsals with Horn for this intimate performance. It’s testament to their professionalism and talent, but also to Horn’s experience and skill as a bandleader.

Horn’s set comprised mostly originals from her three albums, interspersed with a few superbly interpreted covers. She opened with the joyfully upbeat Free Your Mind.  Other original compositions included Searchin’, the swinging grooves of He Could Be Perfect, Legs And Arms, the perky When I Say, the powerful Strive, and more. Later in the set, we were also treated to a brand new song, Voicemail Blues, which she said we were the first to hear.

Her delivery combined powerful octave-traversing singing with spoken word and some astoundingly original scats. Horn has been compared to jazz vocalists Betty Carter, Nancy Wilson, and Sarah Vaughan. Like Carter, Horn has superb control of her instrument. But Horn’s scatting is like nothing I’ve ever heard — her originality of interpretation transcends.

Jazzmeia Horn performing at the UKARIA Cultural Centre | Photo: Daniel Marks

Her vocal gymnastics stretched from low gravelly tones to high notes edging on a scream. The diversity of tone and indeed the sounds she elicits come from an extremely powerful voice. Her scat in He Could Be Perfect included a bar of what sounded like an exotic bird — or was it dolphin chatter? A rapid clickety-click-squeak-click — surprising, distinctive, brilliant.

No wonder she has won both the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition (2013) and the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition (2015). Oh, and the Grammy Award nominations for each of her three albums.

As an entertainer Horn was authentic, unpretentious, and engaging as she introduced each song with brief but charming anecdotes providing insight into her songwriting, with barely a trace of her Texan childhood in her accent. Enabled by the intimate setting of UKARIA’s performance space, she asked the audience questions, had us singing and clapping along to the chorus of Strive, and even spoke directly to individuals.

During uptempo numbers, she kicked off her shoes and stood to the side, dancing and clearly enjoying the grooves, giving the band members space during their solos. But the stage clearly belonged to Horn. After ending the set with the standard I Remember You, the audience showed their enthusiastic appreciation with an almost instant standing ovation.

The opportunity to see a performer of her calibre in such an acoustically dynamic yet intimate atmosphere was a privilege — and unforgettable.

There’s one more chance to see Jazzmeia Horn live in Australia this year. She is the special guest performer at A Night of Jazz, the annual event presented by the Helpmann Academy and The University of Adelaide, which includes the presentation of the 2023 Helpmann Academy Jazz Awards. It’s on Friday 25 August, 6 pm at Elder Hall. Book here.