By Don Heckman
Sheila Jordan was in town last weekend for a two night gig at Vitello’s. Any appearance by Sheila is a significant event for jazz fans. And this one was no exception.
On Friday, she teamed up with singer/author Ellen Johnson for a combined words and music event. Johnson read a few passages from the upcoming Jordan biography she is writing. Between the readings, Sheila sang some of her classics – from “Dat Dere” to “Baltimore Oriole,” with a lot of stops in between.
On Saturday, it was all about Sheila’s vocals, framed in a pure jazz setting provided by the stellar trio of pianist Alan Pasqua, bassist Darek Oles and drummer Peter Erskine. Together – and what they did was always as an ensemble rather than a singer with backing – they took an enthralled audience through what could best be described as a jazz adventure.
Songs dedicated to Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday were both tributes and inspirations. Her version of “My Funny Valentine,” to mention only one, was wrapped in a kind of poetic eulogy tapping into the essence of the way Davis approached the song. In others, she found Rollins’ drive, Parker’s soaring invention, Ella’s spunk and Billie’s passion.
Sheila’s performances are always intriguing blendings of imaginative music making and deeply felt, richly emotional story telling. More than many performing artists, she lays her life on the line with everything she sings.
Yet, given the easygoing mastery of bebop that her fascination with Parker has given her – especially in her briskly swinging, improvisationally adventurous scat singing — given her affection for Holiday and Fitzgerald, the comparable vocal artist who came to mind in many of her songs was Edith Piaf.
Not for the style, the swing or even the substance of what she did. In those areas, jazz is at the center of Sheila’s expression. But in the intimate areas of story telling, of singing in tune with the inner heartbeat of a song, Sheila reached out with the irresistible intensity of the great French chanteuse.
I’ve been listening to Sheila sing – in all the varying stages and areas of her art – for most of my adult life. And a good portion of her Vitello sets were devoted to songs I’ve heard her do many times, in many different settings.
Even so, everything she sang sounded new again. Everything she sang reminded me, over and over again, of the pleasures of the jazz vocal art. And, in a way I don’t experience as much as I’d like to, the more I heard the more I wanted to hear.
Photo by Tony Gieske.