To catch Marcus Shelby’s ear, just ask him about great jazz singers.
An iconic figure on the Bay Area jazz scene for some two decades, the bassist has worked closely with a dazzling array of vocalists, both with his swaggering orchestra and his hard-swinging trio. After a formative mentorship with soul-steeped East Bay jazz and blues great Faye Carol, Gilbert went on to collaborate with divas Mary Stallings and Denise Perrier and rising stars Kim Nalley and Ledisi. Tiffany Austin, the most exciting jazz singer to emerge on the Bay Area scene in the 21st century, got her start working with Shelby.
“I really love vocal music. And I love writing arrangements for singers,” says Shelby, artistic director of the Healdsburg Jazz Festival since 2020. “That’s really how I learned about Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, falling in love with how they wrote for singers.”
Given his track record it seems entirely natural to find the Marcus Shelby Orchestra opening San Jose Jazz’s Winter Fest Thursday with Jazzmeia Horn at Santa Clara University’s Mayer Theater. Horn has been racking up prestigious awards over the past decade, including first place at the 2013 Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition and top honors at the Thelonious Monk Institute International Jazz Competition in 2015.
That particular triumph included a record deal. Her supremely confident 2017 debut album A Social Call was nominated for a Grammy Award and voted the Best Jazz Vocal Debut in NPR’s Music Jazz Critics Poll. The fact that she’s such a standout talent is particularly impressive given that she’s part of a wave of brilliant young women who’ve revitalized the art form, including Cécile McLorin Salvant, Cyrille Aimée, Veronica Swift and Samara Joy.
“In every generation there are artists who step into those spaces, who show ingenuity as a practitioner,” Shelby says. “To me it’s like Nina Simone and how she used her voice and instrument. I’m not calling Jazzmeia Nina Simone. I’m saying she’s stepped into that space in a very powerful, personal way.”
Shelby actually tried to connect with Horn back in 2018 during his stint as a resident artistic director at SFJAZZ. She had seemed an ideal fit for his collaboration with author and activist Angela Davis around her book Blues Legacy and Black Feminism, though Horn was already booked for the dates he had available.
“I’ve been following her career as a fan,” he says. “Her music inspires me, speaks in the same language I’m trying to speak.”
Horn will be in good company. Shelby’s band is stocked with some of the best players in the region, including San Jose saxophonist Kristen Strom, San Francisco trumpeter Mike Olmos, and Alameda pianist Adam Shulman (accompanist of choice for Bay Area vocalist Paula West and Tiffany Austin).
The gig is part of SJZ’s Counterpoint With Ukraine programming, which brings a fascinating cross section of Ukrainian jazz and jazz-beyond artists to Winter Fest. Ghanaian-born trumpeter Dennis Adu, a major creative force on the Ukrainian music scene who’s also presenting his own music with a quintet Saturday at the SJZ Break Room, joins Shelby’s orchestra as a special guest soloist.
For the Winter Fest performance, Shelby’s orchestra is focusing on arrangements that Horn wrote for her 2021 album Dear Love, a project that displayed her rapid creative growth. As someone who’s spent decades immersed in the art of big band writing, “I was even more impressed with her,” Shelby says. “It’s all of her original music and 90 percent, except for maybe one chart, are all of her orchestrations and arrangements. The way she sings, the way she swings, the colors and the rhythms are all in her writing.”
For Horn, composing and arranging provides the ideal vehicle to explore jazz’s essential balance between form and freedom, between group practice and individual expression. “You write a chart out with exactly what you want the musicians to play, but giving them the freedom to express themselves too,” she says. “If you have the musicians to interpret the vibrations and spirit, when you get that moment on the stage, there’s nothing on the planet like it.”
Jazzmeia Horn + the Marcus Shelby Quintet
Thu, 7:30, $35
Louis B. Mayer Theatre, Santa Clara