D.C. Vocalist Coniece Washington Honors Her Lasting Influence, Shirley Horn, on ‘Shades of Shirley Horn’ (Album Review)
Shades of Shirley Horn represents a lifelong dream of sorts for D.C.-based vocalist Coniece Washington, who grew up with Horn and other female jazz vocalists like Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson, Billy Holiday and Carmen McRae as her main influences. Of course, Horn was one of the major jazz talents that hailed from Washington , D.C. so the project becomes even more special that way. When Washington takes the stage locally, her audiences are likely very familiar with Horn’s legacy and style. Those same qualities of class, and a sweet caressing way with lyrics that defined Horn are the same qualities Washington emulates. She explains, “the first time I heard Shirley Horn sing, I fell in love with her groove and elegance. Due to my military service I never had the opportunity to attend one of her shows, but I always carry her sound in my heart.”
Horn was also a pianist, renowned for her ability to both play and sing simultaneously. She collaborated with many jazz greats including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Toots Thielemans, Ron Carter, Carmen McRae, Wynton Marsalis and others. Her ability to accompany herself on the piano while singing was described by arranger Johnny Mandel as “like having two heads”, and for her rich, lush voice, a smoky contralto, which was described by noted producer and arranger Quincy Jones as “like clothing, as she seduces you with her voice”. Coniece Washington only sings but, like Horn, has similar vocal qualities and effects. She does a terrific job of preserving the purity of the material, staying faithful rather than trying to re-interpret.
Washington has seven musicians accompanying her on songs from Horn’s repertoire, mostly drawn from the Great American Song Book, of which these among others will be familiar – “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying,” “Fever,” “Here’s to Life,” and “Just Found Out About Love.” These songs are mostly taken at slow, smoldering, ballad tempos where both Washington and the instrumental soloists wring every drop of soul and feeling from each note. Listen to Thad Wilson’s trumpet on “Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying” as just one example. Other than Horn and some of Washington’s influences, it’s doubtful that you’ve heard as sensual a version of “Fever” as what Washington delivers here. Along with Wilson, aboard are Vince Evans with essential piano, Wes Biles (bass), JC Jefferson (drums), Kevin Kojo Prince (percussion), Carl Carrington (flute) and David B. Cole. Seth Washington does a poetic reading at the outset of the opening “Here’s to Life,” setting the stage beautifully for what follows.
This is only Washington’s second recording following her debut Love Changes but she’s both a jazz vocalist and show producer, with extensive experience performing at night clubs and venues in the states and Europe during her time in the service. Born in Trenton, NJ, Washington began singing in her grandmother’s church before her U.S. Army tour of duty, and subsequently received formal vocal training and became a member of the acclaimed Washington Performing Arts Society Men & Women of the Gospel Choir. From there she has gone on to perform in local area clubs and jazz festivals. As a producer, she is known for her creativity and attention to detail. She competed for and was awarded the 2018 Montgomery County Employee’s Black History show contract.
Washington’s goal is to present the Great American Song Book with integrity. Not only does she succeed in this loving tribute to Horn, but she brings the right mix of class and allure too. This is ideal late night romantic listening.