Jazz Divas Wilson and Horn Pay Their Respects to Miles

Over the past decade, the passing of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and Betty Carter has left the land of the jazz divas resembling a kind of jazz thanatopolis. So, like a kid who’s lost one parent and has taken to inquiring about the health of the other, I find it reassuring that both Cassandra Wilson and Shirley Horn will be coming to Carnegie Hall in the near future (June 19) to sing material from their respective Miles Davis tribute albums, Ms. Horn’s I Remember Miles (Verve) and Ms. Wilson’s Traveling Miles (Blue Note), which just hit the racks. (For the impatient, Ms. Wilson has a gig on April 9 at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, N.J.)

Along with Abbey Lincoln, whose Wholly Earth (Verve) is a fine recent addition to her oeuvre , Ms. Wilson and Ms. Horn are the two standing pillars of a somewhat battered diva tradition, mismatched and well matched at the same time. Ms. Wilson, 43, has concocted for herself an utterly original musical persona. A country girl from Jackson, Miss., she’s a jazz experimentalist who came up through the ranks of the Brooklyn-based M-Base avant-funksters, strutting her stuff on a cache of albums for JMT in the late 80′s and early 90′s. She’s also a something-for-everyone crossover queen, courtesy of two hit albums for Blue Note, 1993′s Blue Light ‘Til Dawn and 1996′s New Moon Daughter , in which a self-conscious but potent sensuality flowed over a bunch of folk, pop and blues tunes like so much Tupelo honey.

But she can be inconsistent. On her last album, Rendezvous (Blue Note), a duet with pianist Jacky Terrasson, the flouting of conventional time and the eccentric phrasing that turned “Tea for Two” into a compelling art song curdled into maddening self-indulgence on “If Ever I Would Leave You.” Still, no singer in jazz has her varied collection of tones–head tones, chest tones–that start low and move lower, from a smoky contralto to a resonant blues huskiness.

Singer-pianist Shirley Horn is her own trip. She’s 65, a frail chain-smoker, and all her life has been pretty much a homebody. A handful of recordings she made in the 60′s and 70′s became collector’s items as fast as they disappeared from the catalogue while Ms. Horn mostly stayed off the road, raising her daughter and playing the local Washington, D.C., clubs with her trio. But since 1987, with Verve as her co-pilot, she’s come into her own through a series of first-rate albums, like the orchestral Here’s to Life and the bluesier Light Out of Darkness , which capture her slow-motion, raised-whisper style.

Ms. Horn and Ms. Wilson aren’t the most obvious song sisters. We’ve got Miles Davis to thank, posthumously, for inspiring their two excellent new albums. As bourgeois and ladylike as Ms. Horn can seem, as African-princessy as Ms. Wilson, they both operate on a blues frequency that runs through the late trumpeter’s work. In contrast to, say, Sarah Vaughan, who wound up singing her own version of jazz opera, or Betty Carter, who brought the abstraction of bebop to the vocal line, Ms. Horn and Ms. Wilson share a sly behind-the-beatness–to use a Milesean word, a cool –that has its roots in laconic folk blues. Given their stylistic differences, they chose their own shades of blue from Miles’ palette.

When Miles listened to Ms. Horn’s 1960 debut album Embers and Ashes , he heard a kindred spirit. He brought her up to open for him at the Village Vanguard in 1961 and was so taken with her slow, swinging reading of mostly old-fashioned standards, he included three of them in his next recording, 1963′s Seven Steps to Heaven . Those tunes–”Basin Street Blues,” “I Fall in Love Too Easily” and “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home”–along with three numbers from Miles’ Porgy and Bess , make up the lion’s share of I Remember Miles . The album is a love letter to Miles and an affirmation of the musical values they once shared. The young Miles and the eternal Shirley are elegant interpreters of Tin Pan Alley, slowing down the tempo to find le note juste , but rarely sacrificing classic triplet-driven swing.

By the late 60′s, Miles had abandoned his classicist’s sense of proportion for a groovier place, where rock-guitar licks or funky Fender Rhodes riffs or blasts from his own chilly trumpet could hang, suspended in space itself. In our present era of electronic Miles worship (see Bill Laswell’s Panthalassa ), no one does it more intriguingly than Ms. Wilson on Traveling Miles . She covers a lot of territory, from vintage 50′s Miles to 80′s pop Miles (a nice “Time After Time”) to her own somewhat rambling originals. But the electronic Dark Prince and the African princess are a match made, if not in heaven, then in some funkier place. Witness her misterioso versions of “Miles Runs the Voodoo Down” from his seminal 1969 album Bitches Brew (here broken out as “Run the VooDoo Down” and “VooDoo Reprise”), and a majestic “Resurrection Blues (Tutu)” from his not so seminal ’86 album Tutu .

Unlike Shirley Horn, who disappears like a character actor into the lyric of the song, Cassandra Wilson, like a Hollywood star, like Miles, is always bigger than her material. (Just to suggest the flavor of the Cassandrian project, on her original, “Memphis,” from New Moon Daughter , she plays on the Southern links to Egypt–rivers, deltas, cities by the name of Memphis–to recast herself as a queen of the Nile.) Her Traveling Miles is a bow of respect from a budding self-mythologist to one of the masters of the game. Fittingly, they never knew each other, their cool auras simply brushed. “I was about 20 feet away from him,” she said recently, describing one chance backstage encounter near the end of Miles’ life. “He was holding his trumpet and he was looking down and he had his sunglasses on. I didn’t ever really speak to him, just an acknowledgment, you know, a nod, a glance.”

With Ms. Horn, the connection is more intimate. After her Jazz at Lincoln Center concert this past December, she told me in a soft, raspy voice: “We were almost lovers. He protected me. He was like an uncle. Like, ‘Don’t sit on the bar. You shouldn’t smoke those cigarettes.’ He kept the hoodlums away from me, you know? He cared and I loved him. When he passed, it’s like a part of me is gone.”