Live Jazz: Sheila Jordan at Vitello’s

By Don Heckman

One of the first things Sheila Jordan said to her packed house listeners after she casually strolled on stage at Vitello’s Saturday night was an off-handed reference to her age – eighty-one, and heading toward eighty-two in November.  And what became quickly apparent – before she’d finished her first number – was that age was utterly irrelevant when it came to her singing.

Yes, she looked great.  For any age. Despite recent heart problems – hopefully now resolved – she was a full service performer, outgoing and swinging on rhythmic numbers, quietly intimate on ballads.  Interacting with pianist Alan Pasqua, bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Peter Erskine, she expressed more life and vigor than most singers a third her age.

But ultimately, her performance was – as her performances always have been since she first arrived on the scene in the early ‘60s – completely about the music.  And in everything she sang – from scatting on bebop lines such as “Groovin’ High” to standards such as “How Deep Is The Ocean?” – Jordan didn’t just deliver the song or tell the story.  She became the song. And she did so in a way that reached beyond jazz toward the similarly gripping, if stylistically different, intensity of an Edith Piaf.

When she sang the Bobby Timmons/Oscar Brown, Jr. kid jazz classic, “Dat Dere,” she was the living expression of every child-like word, ending each phrase with a coy “Can I have dat big elephant over dere?”  In a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, she scatted with the soaring freedom of an instrumentalist, navigating every twist and turn of the harmonies, adding whimsical quotes, doing it all with irresistible swing.

“Humdrum Blues” and her familiar, set-ending improvised biographical blues were displays of her ability to reach into the passages of her checkered past to bring her own illumination to the blues.  “Baltimore Oriole,” a classic track on her 1963 debut recording on Blue Note, was done in slow groove fashion, backed by Warrington’s solid bass and Erskine’s witty drumming.

And her final number, “Autumn In New York” – aimed, I suspect, at seducing the recollections of every former Manhattanite in the room (including this one) – was a complete success in recalling the sounds, the sights and the feelings of the Big Apple at its most nostalgic.

There was more, much more in Jordan’s two sets, including a pair of superb instrumental numbers from the trio.  And all of it was memorable, a remarkable musical experience in the company of a singer who – even at this still-vital stage in her career – has not received the full recognition that her extraordinary talent deserves.

Photo by Faith Frenz.

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