JJ 03/80: Stateside Scene – Sheila Jordan

Sheila Jordan brought her rucksack filled with vocal tricks and treats to a new spot called The Jazz Gallery in New York for a one-nighter and there were good things and bad things about the whole evening, says Lee Jeske. First published Jazz Journal March 1980

Sheila Jordan. Photo from JJ Archive

First of all, The Jazz Gallery is an ‘art’ gallery which will be given over to jazz concerts here and there.

Secondly, Sheila was performing with the Steve Kuhn Trio, with whom she has recently recorded for ECM. That is, basically, good. Kuhn is an able and spritely pianist who likes to throw in some romping, dissonant stride to piano compositions which are fugue-like and mannered. The piano was basically bad, but then again I don’t expect Carnegie Hall to have good art. Kuhn, however, writes songs with lyrics and this is basically bad.

What was very, very good, however, was the remainder of Kuhn’s band – Harvey Swartz and Bob Moses. Swartz and Moses (sounds like an insurance brokerage) are exemplary accompanists to a singer. Swartz walks his contrabass with a lively bounce, and Moses’ brushwork is tasteful, stylish and swinging. Ms. Jordan seems to be constricted by a pianist and the highlights of her two sets occurred when Steve Kuhn laid out (quite literally, since there was no backstage space and he had to sit quietly on the floor behind the piano).

Sheila’s skills are in reworking a familiar melody. It must be familiar for us to appreciate what she’s doing with it. Her voice is like a pinball — going poing, ping, pa-ding around the changes, occasionally falling into one of those little holes when she holds a note for a beat or two longer and then poings it out into the melody. This she did, first, on A Sleeping Bee. Another of her incomparable vocal talents is the ability to completely rework the melody without giving up the lyric – the words soon lose their meaning and become effective sounds. You think this is easy – try singing the words of I Got Rhythm to the tune of Them There Eyes, or whatever.

She did this on a number of standards – Please Don’t Talk About Me (with the word ‘advice’ stretched over six beats), You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To and a roaring Confirmation.

Sheila Jordan’s voice is acidy in a pleasant way. Her phrasing is more like a trumpet than the more familiar saxophone styled singing and it is a joy to hear anytime. Roll, Jordan, roll.