Singer Sheila Jordan, a pioneer of the vocal-bass jazz duo, performs at Museum Hill Café
JAZZ VOCALIST SHEILA JORDAN
Sheila Jordan is a pioneer of the bass-vocal jazz duo. When she appears on Friday, March 6, at the Museum Hill Café with bassist Cameron Brown, she’ll extend an instrumental relationship that goes back nearly six decades — to a performance in a Toledo nightclub, when bassist Charles Mingus asked her to come up to the bandstand and do a number with him. “I knew Mingus from (guitarist-instructor) Lennie Tristano’s studio,” Jordan told Pasatiempo from her home in upstate New York. “Lennie had me singing with bassists there, it was part of a lesson. But I hadn’t really sung out like you would in front of an audience. And Mingus made me get up with him and sing (Jerome Kern’s) ‘Yesterdays.’ It was scary performing with just the bass, and it was scary singing with Mingus. He could be out.”
“Out,” of course, means a playing style, usually improvised, that is outside the parameters of predictable rhythm and melody. It’s also a fair description of Jordan’s improvisational style, honed during the bebop period — she goes unexpected places, filling rhythmic nooks and crannies with her melted-butter voice. Pianos, with their percussively rhythmic feel and complementary chords, may reign as the jazz vocalist’s accompanying instrument of choice. But Jordan discovered early on that the bass was her perfect foil, and performing over the years with a handful of distinguished bassists has led her to keep it as her preferred accompaniment for decades. “I had the desire to do bass and voice back in the ’50s,” she said. “Everybody would seem a little shy about my not wanting to use a piano: Dear, don’t you want to sing with a piano? I hear the bass very strongly, and it was something I wanted to develop.”
Bass-vocal pairings were rare as the ’50s gave way to the ’60s. Jordan honed her vocal skills working with piano trios at the Page Three Club in New York’s Greenwich Village. Pianist-arranger George Russell heard her there and invited her to sing on his Riverside Records release The Outer View . Her rendition on Russell’s sextet arrangement of “You Are My Sunshine” is at once silky, understated (she sings the first verse a cappella), and bluesy as the song veers into strange, jazzy realms. “I hadn’t recorded until then,” Jordan said, “but I wouldn’t give up my career. The music is too important to me, like sleeping: something I need to do. I worked in an office by day and sang in the Village by night. Then George came around and got me signed up with Blue Note.” Jordan requested that her first recording for the label, Portrait of Sheila , be a duo date with bassist Steve Swallow, who played on The Outer View . “But the label said, We don’t know about that,” Jordan explained. “Even a company as advanced as Blue Note thought about it and said no.’’ Released in 1962, the LP featured guitarist Barry Galbraith, bassist Steve Swallow, and drummer Denzil Best. Jordan did convince her producers to give her one number alone with Swallow, a rhythmic romp through Oscar Brown’s lyric to pianist Bobby Timmons’ composition “Dat Dere.”
After Portrait of Sheila , Jordan didn’t record again for a dozen years. Why? “I don’t know,” she confessed. “I’ve never been a pusher, never been a self-promoter. I just lie in the background somewhere and do what I can to keep the music alive. I never stopped performing. I’ve always preferred live performance to recording.” Confirmation came out in 1975, with Jordan backed by pianist Alan Pasqua, bassist Brown, and drummer Beaver Harris. At one point during the album’s title tune, Jordan takes a swing through composer Charlie “Bird” Parker’s changes with just the bass, giving the often-frantic bebop lyric a smoothness and sheen that might have been lost behind the entire trio. In 1978, Sheila , the first of her many bass-vocal recordings, was released on the European SteepleChase label. The bassist, Arild Andersen, a Norwegian, had studied with George Russell.
Jordan was introduced to a new generation of jazz fans when she started recording with pianist Steve Kuhn’s trio for the ECM label in 1979 ( Playground was the first release). “Steve had drummer Bob Moses and, at one point, (saxophonist) Steve Slagle in the group,” Jordan said. “Steve was not into singers as far as working with one, but he said he’d work with me. We did a couple of concerts before Steve left. Then it was just me and Kuhn’s trio.” Jordan had previously been impressed with the trio’s bassist, Harvie Swartz (now Harvie S), when she was called up to sing a number with saxophonist Lee Konitz’s combo. Jordan helped enlist Swartz for the Kuhn band even as she recruited him for duo work. “I asked Harvie — I told him I’d really like to do bass-and-voice duos with him. But we had to be serious about it, we’d have to rehearse at least once a week. At that time, he lived about 10 blocks from me, so I’d go over to his loft and we’d rehearse. We got religious about it. The two cut Old Time Feeling (1982), a duo recording that inaugurated a long relationship. The Very Thought of Two , a live recording of a 1988 concert in Tokyo, was released in 2000. “Harvie had very good ideas about our music, and we were a very fruitful combination. We did very well together.” The 1990 recording Yesterdays , released by HighNote Records in 2012, documents one of their last performances together.
Swartz eventually moved on to record with his own ensembles, while Jordan rediscovered Cameron Brown in 1997, when the two performed together in Belgium. Brown was known for his solid support, but he also had
a reputation as a musician who could play out — something he’d earned as a member of saxophonist George Adams and pianist Don Pullen’s forwardthinking quartet. That concert in Belgium marked the first time Jordan and Brown had performed as a duo, and its recording was later released as I’ve Grown Accustomed to the Bass . Jordan continues to tour well into her eighties, often with Brown, and almost always performing songs that have been in her repertoire since the 1950s.
And she’s written some tunes of her own, most notably “The Crossing,” which details a difficult period in her life — more specifically, her struggle with substance abuse and her eventual release from it. Beginning in the ’70s, Jordan developed a problem with alcohol, and later with cocaine. In one of the jazz world’s most mythic stories, the voice of Charlie Parker called the singer back to her art. Jordan often says that Parker is the reason she sings jazz. She’d started her career singing Parker’s music in a vocal ensemble based in Detroit. Later, in New York, she would come to know the inventor of the bebop saxophone. “When I knew Bird, I didn’t drink. I wasn’t involved in substance abuse.” Jordan said she was a “dry drunk” in the ’80s, as cocaine took over her life. And then she had what she calls a spiritual awakening. “I was on the couch and had been snorting and couldn’t sleep. I was just miserable. Then I heard this voice, something beyond anything I’d ever felt before beside the feeling I had for Bird’s music: ‘I gave you this gift, and I’m going to take it away.’ It was as though Bird was speaking through the voice of a higher power.”
Jordan said “The Crossing” pays tribute to that deliverance, inspiring also her continued involvement in jazz education — something she’s done since leading her first classes at New York’s City College back in the late ’70s. “This is what I do to keep the music alive,” she said. “Whether teaching or singing or talking or listening to it, jazz means everything to me. The love I have for it keeps me alive.”
▼ The Santa Fe Music Collective presents Sheila Jordan and Cameron Brown ▼ 7 p.m. (doors open at 6 p.m.) Friday, March 6 ▼ Museum Hill Café, 710 Camino Lejo ▼ $30; 505-983-6820, www.santafemusiccollective.org