Sheila Jordan’s Place in the Sunshine

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 05.17.10 in Spotlights

Our story starts in Pennsylvania coal country, 1962. Jazz singer Sheila Jordan had taken her new friend George Russell to visit the hardscrabble hills where she’d spent her early years. At a local beer garden, Jordan performed an impromptu “You Are My Sunshine” with her grandmother on piano. Russell was an ultramodern composer, and the old song as corny as breakfast flakes – but Sheila’s version got to him. Back in New York, he arranged an extended, spellbinding version for six instruments – and Jordan, who enters halfway through to freely swing the melody, in no hurry, and sometimes descending to a whisper. She takes the lyric’s homespun lament at face value, without irony – but then she is always emotionally direct. It was her first commercial recording, and it put her on the map. She recorded her debut Portrait of Sheila for Blue Note just weeks later. It was her last recording as a leader for more over a decade.

Raising a daughter as a 9-to-5 working mom came first, which may help explain why half of Sheila’s second album, 1975′s Confirmation, was devoted to songs associated with childhood, from Billie Holiday‘s “God Bless the Child” to one with a Dr. Seuss lyric, “Because We’re Kids.” The album’s title tune was by Charlie Parker. The bebop innovator had been Jordan’s idol since she was a teenager in Detroit in the late 1940s, and first heard Bird’s fast, intricate bebop on a jukebox. In bop-central New York by the early ’50s, she began studying with modern jazz guru Lennie Tristano. When he gave Sheila her first assignment – memorize a Parker solo – she sang him one on the spot. She and Parker became friends, and Bird gave her a priceless compliment: You’ve got million-dollar ears.

Jordan’s versions of Parker tunes like “Confirmation” and “Barbados” confirm how much she took his behind-the-beat, across-the-barlines phrasing to heart. They also show off her knack for setting lyrics to Bird’s convoluted melodies. And like any good bopper she’ll recast a song’s melody on the fly.

That said, she’s also the rare veteran bopper in sympathy with (and equally comfortable in) free jazz and its loosely structured collective improvisations. She demonstrated her avant chops on a couple of hard-to-find ’70s records with trombonist Roswell Rudd, and on bassist Marcello Melis‘s 1978 Free to Dance, where she’s paired with fellow free singer Jeanne Lee as part of a roiling New York 11tet.

But Jordan works best in intimate settings. She lacks nothing in rhythmic confidence, and her pitch is enviably sure. Even so, her voice is rather small and fragile-sounding, and she likes nothing better than to perform with only bass for accompaniment – where the duo can bring the volume way down and thin out the texture. (She’s not afraid of open space.) It takes the right partner. Working together without a piano to anchor their pitches, upright bass and voice can slide out of tune in no time flat. A lesser singer wouldn’t even attempt it.

Jordan’s first long-term duo partner was bassist Harvie S aka Harvie Swartz; that tandem is heard on the fine 1988-93 compilation From the Heart. There she’s also joined by pianist Kenny Barron with Swartz and drummer Ben Riley, and rhythm trio plus a string quartet arranged by Alan Broadbent. This sampler points up Jordan’s limber swing feel (on the superb quartet tracks especially), and how she turns her limitations to advantage: Her seemingly conversational dynamic level draws you in.

You can tell she’s a warm human being – as umpteen ex-students will attest – just from her music. (“I hate the word ‘diva’,” she’s said. “To me it means a self-centered woman who’s a pain in the ass.”) And she always makes it personal. Jordan doesn’t just set lyrics to bop tunes, she makes up words even to tunes that already have them, like Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing.” Elsewhere, she uses partly scripted, partly improvised words to tell her own story, as on several versions of “Sheila’s Blues,” or on standards where she riffs on her observations of Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and others.

Her more recent duo partner, by the way, played bass back on 1975′s Confirmation, Cameron Brown, who later hired Jordan for a 1997 European tour commemorated on the agreeably loose Here and How! Their duo made the live Celebration in 2005.

One benefit of having a small voice to begin with: Jordan still sounds assured, pushing age 80, on 2008′s Winter Sunshine, live with a Montreal trio. She’s still improvising lyrics and reminiscing in tempo (“Comes Love,” “It Never Entered My Mind”), swinging classic ballads (“I Remember You”) and tunes about kids (“Dat Dere”), and singing bebop like the music was newly minted (“Little Willie Leaps,” which she’s been singing since Detroit).

On Winter Sunshine‘s “Whose Little Angry Man”/”St. Thomas,” as on the title track to 2002′s Little Song, she reaches even further back, to the Native American chanting she learned from a Cherokee grandfather; she implicitly links that classic rhythm-syllable music to the wordless bebop scat singing she excels at. Jordan makes the blend of traditions sound utterly natural, but then for her it is. And she still has the enthusiasm of someone a quarter her age. (Listen to her work that Montreal crowd!) The sunshine has never left her.