Flashback Friday – Shirley Horn – Embers and Ashes

Embers and Ashes

Shirley Horn – vocals and piano
Joe Benjamin – bass
Lewis Powers – bass
Harry Saunders – drums
Herbie Lovelle – drums

The year would not be complete without one more Flashback Friday. This album is commonly known as Embers and Ashes but its actual title is Embers and Ashes – Songs of Lost Love Sung by Shirley Horn. I was finally able to get a copy of this album after about 5 years of casually searching and it was definitely worth the wait. I first saw it on eBay for $140 a couple of years ago and it would occasionally appear but never within my price range until earlier this year. To date, it is only available on vinyl but hopefully it will eventually be reissued on CD with alternate takes and extra tracks that were not included on the original pressing. Check either eBay or gemm.com for the album.

Ember and Ashes was Shirley Horn’s first album recorded on Stere-o-craft Records in 1960 when she was 26 years old. As I listened, I was amazed by her vocal phrasing, use of space, and chord structure on the piano. She sang and played like a seasoned professional even at an early age. Much of the richness in her music today was in the making very early in her career.

Here are a couple of excerpts from the album’s liner notes written by Jazz DJ Mort Fega:

As a disc jockey, I listen to just about every new release, and believe me, there seems to be a bottomless font from which the new releases spring. I’ve been searching, all through this incessant outpouring, for new singers, vocalists who sing well enough to challenge the hierarchy of those who have “arrived”, and for the most part, my search has been completely unrewarding. It has gotten to the point where I’d be satisfied to find a new singer who stays in tune, and who doesn’t feel the necessity to “gimmick” up his or her delivery, just for the sake of getting a different sound.

I can confess now that I approached this album, as I have all the others that preceded it, with that “here we go again” attitude, but after listening to only one or two tracks I thought I detected a sense of fulfillment; and after listening to the test pressing all the way through, I felt certain that Shirley Horn is going to make it, and make it for all who enjoy good singing, jazz and pop devotees, alike. You see, Shirley Horn can sing! She can sing in tune, with a straight-forward, “un-gimmicked” style that is completely musical, so she has to make it.

It is fascinating how the criticisms of music of the past still hold true today in current music and yet, Shirley’s music shines ever more brightly with time.

Every track on this album is a precious gem. She opens Side A with the mid-tempo “Like Someone in Love”, then shifts to her trademark slow tempo on “He Never Mentioned Love.” Her words paint the listener a picture of a beautiful romance that reached a climatic peak then came crashing down, breaking with into tiny pieces. Her instrumental of “Softly As in a Morning Sunrise” showcases a bit of her early classical music training then opens into a swinging beat. If you listen closely, you can hear finger snaps toward the end of the track. On “I Thought About You”, Shirley and the bass player are in step with each other as she precisely frames each of her notes while the drummer creates magical brush strokes which embellish this lush track. She picks up the pace on the whimsical “Mountain Greenery” and closes out the side with her reading of Billie Holiday’s “God Bless The Child.” She embraces this classic tune as her own without taking away any of its original integrity.

Shirley opens Side B with the poignant ballad “Blue City.” She starts off on solo piano and does a echoing on the ending words of a couple of verses then her trio comes in adding color to this dreamy ballad. She swings sweetly on “Day by Day” and it is followed up by my personal favorite ballad on the album, “If I Should Lose You.” I guess I am a sucker for a great, “hang-your-heart-out-to dry” lyric and with Shirley’s gentle touch and caress, it can melt your heart.

If I should lose you
The stars would fall from the skies
If I should lose you
The leaves would wither and die

The birds in maytime
Would sing a lonely refrain
And I would wander around
Hating the sound of rain

With you beside me
No wind in winter would blow
With you beside me
A rose would bloom in the snow

I gave you my love
But I was living a dream
And living would seem in vain
If I lost you

“Wild is the Wind” has a percussive rhythm as a backdrop for Shirley’s breathy vocals. The drummer provides sounds of the wind with his malletts on the cymbals. “Come Rain or Shine” has a natural build as she effortlessly conveys this melody. She ends the album with the mid-tempo “Just in Time.” The track opens with a nice bass solo which sets the mood for the rest of the song. The liner notes do not really tell which bass player or drummer played on each track but, in any case, the rhythm section was superb.

Shirley Horn has been making headlines recently with being honored at the Kennedy Center earlier in December and as an 2005 Fellowship Recipient of the National Endowments of the Art Jazz Masters Fellowships. She will be playing the Le Jazz Au Bar in New York City from January 6-9. These concerts will be used for her live album expected to be released in May 2005. Listening to her vast body of music, it is evident why she is a musical treasure. Enjoy your music.

Related Articles

NYTimes.com: A Veteran Song Stylist Swings to Her Own Beat
WashingtonPost.com: The Tender Notes of Shirley Horn
WashingtonPost.com: At Kennedy Center, a Heartfelt Tribute to Shirley Horn

3 Responses to “Flashback Friday – Shirley Horn – Embers and Ashes”

  1. dawn says:

    love her love her love her!!!!!

  2. Question:
    Where can one buy a CD/DVD of the early Shirley Horn LP “Embers and Ashes”?

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