“The first time I heard Shirley Horn sing, I fell in love with her groove and her elegance…I always carry her sound in my heart.” Coniece Washington is one of those jazz singers who can channel the spirit of many who came before such as Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughn. Her connection to the great Shirley Horn, however, borders on the divine. On Washington’s new tribute album, Shades of Shirley Horn, she captures what was so special about this legendary singer–the soft touch. Horn was the type of singer who could burrow deep into a song and find its beating heart. Coniece Washington has that same introspective nature, that ability to focus on the inner beauty of the song first, before the swing.
I don’t want to come off as a Shirley Horn expert. My own exposure to her over the years has been sadly limited–at least until I reviewed the ORG Music reissue of Softly last year. Since then I’ve been searching out her catalog and finding plenty of musical treasures. Coniece Washington’s devotion to Horn is more poignant. She regrets that she never saw Horn perform live (the singer passed away in 2005) due to her own military service. After leaving the Army, Washington focused on her singing career and started performing all over the Washington DC area–Blues Alley, the DC Jazz Festival and Westminster Presbyterian Church Friday Night Jazz. (That’s fitting, since she learned how to sing in her grandmother’s church when she was a little girl.)
Now that she’s garnered a lot of attention through her first album, Love Changes, Coniece Washington has returned to Shirley Horn. It’s obvious that the two are kindred spirits–the voices are different but the underlying spirit is almost identical. Washington has a classically beautiful voice, absolutely clear and without undue affectations that you often hear in contemporary jazz. She has an honest delivery, one that hints that everything comes straight from the heart without the brain getting too much in the way. Her voice, to put it simply, is a goosebump machine.
I’ve been spending a lot of time listen to women jazz singers lately, and there’s certainly a spectrum between singers who have their own vision that’s been created solely from their own skill set, and those who simply want to pay homage to the past. Coniece Washington is firmly planted in the latter group, but not in a way that suggests she’ll have limited appeal to fans of contemporary jazz. It’s a rare thing when a performer is so indelibly linked to another, but quite another when you can clearly experience the benefit of two different perspectives. Coniece Washington may have the spirit of Shirley Horn down pat, but what if she can do the same for Ella, Sarah and Billie? I’ll certainly look forward to those albums if she chooses to go in that direction.