Club Review: Sheila Jordan

July 12, 2021 | By

Sheila Jordan

Singer/curator Ben Cassara chose the perfect singer to open his Pangea Hot Summer Night Jazz Series when he chose Sheila Jordan.  There is a special sense of excitement and a bit of awe when one goes to see one of the legends, and still performing at the top of her game, when one gets to witness living, breathing history and, at the same time, is royally entertained.  For the debut of this series, and at the suggestion of her bassist, Harvie S, Ms. Jordan chose to revisit her recording debut in 1962 with the Blue Note LP, Presenting Sheila Jordan. She was one of the first vocalists signed by the legendary jazz label.  It also happens to be the first Sheila Jordan album I ever owned.

Returning to some songs that she had not sung in almost six decades, she reveled in the rediscovery.  She began the show with the “disclaimer” that, yes, she was “another chick singer.” When Jordan says that line it brings with it a startling sense of history.  Chick singers were second- and sometimes third-class singers in the world of jazz—especially white singers who hung out with black musicians.  She was a groundbreaker. She found an ally and inspiration in Charlie “Bird” Parker, and from that moment she staked her claim in a still misogynist world.  She developed her own personal vocalise style, often writing her own lyrics to existing riffs, and gradually morphing that into a riveting kind of scat-speak patter with which she intro’s songs and sometimes just tells stories. 

Needless to say, Jordan and her cohorts at Blue Note had exquisite taste in songs, so the material has held up remarkably well over the years.  She and her musicians (including guitarist Roni Ben Hur) in no way treated them as museum pieces. They were presented as vital, living, breathing works of art with depths still to explore,  surprises still to be found, and pleasures still to be shared.  Her remarkable sense of time and phrasing remains colored with a healthy dose of the blues and, in fact, she chose to open with Oscar Brown, Jr.’s “Hum Drum Blues” which was a gutsy choice in 1962, and remains one in 2021, proving that the audience needn’t worry about making allowances for years, or changing tastes, or anything else.  

The impossibly and eternally hip “Baltimore Oriole” (Hoagy Carmichael, Paul Francis Webster) was an intoxicating delight. Jordan dug back to 1928 (a considerable length of time even in 1962) to resurrect “Am I Blue” (Harry Akst, Grant Clarke). Here, she put more drama, defeat, loss, pain, and hope into the line, “I’m just a woman, a lonely woman,” than most singers would invest in the entire song. Her dizzying changes in that tribute to love and limerence, “Falling in Love with Love” (Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart), were electrifying; they left me exhausted for her, but the lady herself never flagged.When the musicians took solos, the singer turned to the audience with a wide, smile that literally lit up the room.She was having fun while at the same time doing full justice to Hart’s artful lyrics.She jumped on the usually unexceptional phrase “such a juvenile fantasy” and by bending it, shaping it, breaking it down and putting it back together, she made “ju-u-u-u-u-u-u-venial fantasy” sound like she was living that fantasy in front of us.

She admitted that there were a lot of love songs and, while she  had “no lovers…no more!,” she can sing about them because she remembers…she remembers!  In her introduction to “I’m a Fool to Want You” (Joel S. Heron, Jack Wolf, Frank Sinatra), the torch she carried was outsized and heartbreaking. The dark drama of the lyrics becomes, in her voice, the smoldering embers of a love that burned itself out in a blaze of passion.  When she wails, “Pity me, I need you…”, it is a hard heart indeed that won’t respond to the pain. She had a field day with the twisty words of “Dat Dere” (Bobby Timmons, Oscar Brown, Jr.) which, in the original version, was about a father, but Jordan, herself, rewrote it to give it the “mama’s view.”  The amount of intelligent musicianship on display in Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now” (originally written for Sarah Vaughan), left me shaking my head in wonder.

Observing that she had been singing “All these depressing ballads,” she changed pace and blazed through a rapid-fire swing take on Irving Berlin’s “Let’s Face the Music and Dance.” One of my favorite songs from the album, “Laugh, Clown, Laugh” (Ted FioRito, Sam M. Lewis, Joe Young) was a standout in the show as well, in an even stronger performance.

The tremendous response of the audience was not for some attempt at nostalgically recalling past musical triumphs. The applause and cheers were inspired by singing so vital, so smart and so bristling with ideas and with life, that I can’t imagine a better example of vocal jazz to be found in the city in 2021. I felt like I was eavesdropping on some sweet and rare dream of jazzy perfection.  I was happy and grateful to be in her presence and to be touched by her timeless art.

Presented at Pangea as part of Pangea’s Hot Summer Night Jazz Series on July 7.

Category: News / Reviews / Commentary, Reviews

About the Author ()

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”

Comments (2)

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  1. Thank you much for you beautiful review of my concert at Pangea. I am so honored by your lovely review. Thanks Thanks Thanks my dear. and have a great life. Sheila Jordan

  2. I can’t imagine a review better matched in description, depth and praise than this. There was so much to savor in that hour- plus, that I’m ever more grateful to have your finely sculpted account. In addition, you stimulated my curiosity. One does not see the word “limerance” kicking around. I enjoyed looking up its etymology and meanings. More often used by shrinks…with whom Larry Hart was quite familiar. Although he implies, I’ve never noticed his use of the word.
    Anyway, just my little flight of fancy, thanks to you. CHEERS! Daryl