Singer Sheila Jor­dan, a pi­o­neer of the vo­cal-bass jazz duo, per­forms at Mu­seum Hill Café


Pasatiempo - - NEWS - Bill Kohlhaase For The New Mex­i­can

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.santafe­mu­s­ic­col­lec­

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