Another weekend night at one of America's coolest jazz clubs, the Green Mill in Chicago, this time with one of the finest, most underrated American jazz singer, Ms. Sheila Jordan. Ms. Jordan (b. 1928) was a contemporary of Charlie Parker, and was briefly married to one of Parker's pianists, Duke Jordan. Until about 20 years ago, a day job kept her from pursuing singing full-time -- before then, Jordan sang with George Russell, Carla Bley and Roswell Rudd, and in the early 1960s recorded her debut for Blue Note (one of that label's few vocal albums). Jordan has a diminutive, gentle, translucent, slightly breathy voice that curls around words the way a saxophone or flugelhorn might; for the uninitiated, points of reference include Billie Holiday, Joni Mitchell, Anita O'Day, and Rickie Lee Jones. She improvises with words -- making up coherent lyrics on the spot with a mix of whimsy and just-plain-folks charm -- but she doesn't use her voice "as" an instrument. Rather, Jordan "just" sings, but applies an instrumentalist's techniques to the words: elongating, deepening, twisting, and interpreting them.
Ably accompanied by the trio of Bradley Williams (piano), Dan Delorenzo (bass) and Michael Schlick (drums), Shelia Jordan held the clientele of the Green Mill in (to coin a cliché) in the palm of her hand. Part amiable earth-mother, part seen-it-all hipster, all masterful singer, one who can take the hoariest standards and make them sound like they were written for her. High points on this Friday night (of her two-night stand) included a wondrous medley of a Native American chant (Ms. SJ is part Cherokee) and the Beatles' "Blackbird," and a shimmering, wistful tribute to Miles Davis that practically put you in the club digging his mid-50s Quintet. The trio was both subtly unobtrusive and elegantly swinging -- most notable was Williams, who played chords thick as fudge, and as tasty, too.
There were a couple of nice surprises on this night -- vocalist Jay Clayton (who, apart from her own career, has sung with Jane Ira Bloom and minimalist composer Steve Reich) joined Jordan onstage for some wonderful scat-singing duets. Usually, I'm somewhat allergic to scat-singing -- I'm a lyric-man -- and sometimes when like-instrument musicians pair/square-off, it can lead to a round of tedious can-you-top-that showboating. But these ladies combined their amazing techniques (Clayton seems more at home with "working syllables" than Jordan) with a palpable feeling of camaraderie and mutual affection -- they sang together and played off of each other, and it was rousing for all concerned (audience too). Later, Chicago-based pianist Patricia Barber joined Ms. SJ on stage for an improvised, autographical blues -- Barber's full-sounding pianism was a dandy contrast to Jordan's sly, lean stream-of-consciousness raps.
Anyone who's read my reviews/rants knows I'm no big fan of most jazz singers. But, Jordan takes the old-school approach (Great American Songbook, scatting, torch-y ballad style, etc.) and infuses it with an amiable audaciousness (befitting one who was down with the avant-garde in the 60s & 70s) and a daring but earthy improviser's approach that still respects the Song being Sung. Her latest album Little Song (HighNote), recorded with longtime collaborator Steve Kuhn (piano) and guest trumpeter Tom Harrell, is a most excellent late-nite chill-out album. As the lady is in her mid-70s, catch her if you can, and, to paraphrase the late Champion Jack Dupree, give her the flowers while she's living.