Shirley Horn on Resonance Records

Resonance Records has put out some of the most vital, previously unreleased (in some cases, unknown) historical jazz sessions in recent years, and the latest is one of the sweetest: Shirley Horn, Live at the 4 Queens, recorded at a now-defunct Las Vegas hotel-casino of that name in 1988. It's Horn's best live album, and one of her top few albums, period—which says a lot.

The gig took place soon after her revival, with a hit album on the Verve label, after a couple decades of self-exiled obscurity, raising a family in Washington, DC, and playing now and then in local clubs, to the joy of patrons who snorted that the know-it-alls up in New York didn't know what they were missing. I was one of those patrons, and got to know the queen of ballads fairly well.

In other words, Shirley Horn was getting famous, but she hadn't yet reached stardom, wasn't yet basking in quite the regal pose that she later adopted as her just desserts in life. She was singing her ballads slow but not yet s-s-l-lo-ohhh, as she did in later years. (She died in 2005 at the age of 71.) She never stopped swinging, but she was doing more of it in 1988. There are a couple of tracks where she doesn't sing, she just plays the piano, backed by her trio (and she was an excellent, vibrant pianist in the Ahmad Jamal tradition, heaving block chords, shimmering with slightly off-centered harmonies and color notes), something she often did at concert but rarely on albums.

In other words, she was having more undisguised fun, and Live at the 4 Queens is worth the cost of admission just for the few seconds near the start of the album's first song, when she sings, with a strained longing, "You'd Be So / Nice / to Come Home to," then lets out a husky, sexy chuckle.

Horn was always one of the few great jazz singers who paid close attention to the lyrics of a song. At her most enchanting, she made them seem spontaneous, as if they were telling the story of her life.

Her band was fairly new at this point. Charles Ables, who later did little more than pluck the tonic of whatever chord Horn was playing (that's all she wanted from a bass player), steps out a bit more inventively here. Steve Williams, who could later coax the essence of romance in 4/4 time on the drums, is still growing at this stage, though he's caught the spirit with gusto.

The concert, part of a Monday night jazz series at the hotel back then, was recorded by the local public-radio station, and the sound is quite good: a big, miked sound that captures the dynamics and colors and skillfully keeps the casino noise all but inaudible.

As with other Resonance releases, it comes with a thick booklet with nice photos and truly informative, well-written essays, in this case about Horn, her band, her career, and the Washington, DC jazz scene of the time.

Jason Victor Serinus's picture

I believe this will appear in hi-res digital form by year's end.

ednazarko's picture

I always try to hold out for the hi-res form. Many times the creation of the high resolution albums includes some rethinking of the mix. I've got a few albums where I have the Apple 256K version, the CD version, and a newly released high res version, and the loveliness of the high res version is much more due to the re-mixing than simply different sampling rate. (I've also got a similar set of versions of albums that weren't remixed for high res, and with very few exceptions, the high res sounds better. Not just my opinion, but the opinions of people who are visiting and have heard an album with different sampling rates mixed, and then quiz me about what the hell was wrong with that album that some songs sounded amazing and others sounded so flat.)

Here's hoping some of the production wizards work it over.

dalethorn's picture

I would have guessed that it's 50-50, with the download being better half the time, and that's not even pessimistic! So, I hope you're right and this will be the best it can be in high-res.