Sheila Jordan: Struggling To Be Free

Bleak piano chords. Subdued, eerie horns and bass. Then J.J.-style muted trombone, Milesian trumpet, and Birdlike saxophone rise bravely to make swinging, bluesy proclamations. Over a jagged, lurching rhythm section, the horns play a simple melody at a much slower tempo. Then everybody drops out while a soft, unaccompanied female voice sings the lyrics to the simple tune, “You Are My Sunshine.” The singer is Sheila Jordan.

George Russell conceived this striking arrangement for his 1962 album Outer View after visiting Sheila Jordan’s childhood home in western Pennsylvania.

Sheila Jordan has always expressed the full range of her emotions with her voice. “Quasimodo,” with her lyrics set to Charlie Parker’s music, is a lighthearted skip through Bopland. But when she does “Don’t Explain” as a part of her “Suite for Lady and Prez,” it’s clear that she’s felt the same self-destructive attraction to a man that Billie Holiday sang about. Today, as half of the Sheila Jordan/Harvie Swartz Duo, Jordan is still singing out her pain and joy.

As a high school student in Detroit, she became friends with various other young musicians, including Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Burrell, and Barry Harris. It was a rich period that lent her an autobiographical song, “Sheila’s Blues.” She eventually met and married Duke Jordan. “I loved Charlie Parker so much I married his piano player,” she has said. They divorced after a few years, and she was left to raise a daughter by herself.

“Dat Dere” (music by Bobby Timmons, lyrics by Oscar Brown, Jr.), which she and Swartz perform at every concert, is a funny sketch about the questions kids ask, which she first sang for her daughter. (Her daughter is now grown and working in promotions for Arista Records.)

Sheila Jordan
Sheila Jordan – looking for a yardbird, no doubt
(Chris Ramirez, N.Y. Times; July 2009)

Jordan finds fulfillment in working with younger people. She has taught vocal classes at City College in New York since 1975. And she plans soon to tour several cities as a solo act backed up by local musicians.

Her most recent album as a leader, The Crossing (1986, Black Hawk Records), is only her second American record in 20 years, despite wide acclaim–including being named Talent Deserving Wider Recognition in down beat magazine’s International Critics Poll seven times. Despite her artistic success, Jordan has not had an easy life. Unable to depend financially on her singing career, she has worked in clerical jobs since high school. She’s been at the same company in New York for 21 years.

The title cut of The Crossing, a duet with Swartz, was inspired by a cork sculpture by Jordan’s boyfriend, George DiVine. A recovered alcoholic, Jordan had saved corks from bottles of wine, and DiVine fashioned his artwork from these. She composed the song spontaneously while singing with Swartz. It opens with Swartz’s droning, strummed bass, and Jordan’s mystical wordless vocal, then moves into the simply stated, country-flavored melody and lyric. It’s about finding transcendence, which she achieves through music.

There are delicate parts of my voice 
that for some reason I can’t hear or feel all the time 
when I’m with a full rhythm section.

Although she has the talent to make commercial pop, Jordan says, “I don’t have a feeling for it, the way a lot of people don’t have a feeling for jazz. I’d rather type and file, and keep the music pure–for me. I don’t want to take a chance on going out there and quitting my job and then not having enough music. I’m scared to be without anything. I made a vow to myself when I was very young that I just wasn’t going to live like that when I was grown.”

Swartz and Jordan met a few years ago when Swartz was working with saxophonist Lee Konitz. “It was my birthday,” Jordan recalls, “and Lee asked me to sit in.” She and Swartz had a good musical rapport and decided to rehearse together. Later they worked in other groups, including the Steve Kuhn Quartet (documented on the ECM albums Last Year’s Waltz and Playground).

Swartz’s role in the duo is much more than the accompanist/timekeeper function traditionally assigned bassists. With Jordan, the virtuoso plays in a highly melodic style, often playing lead while she darts in and out of the tune’s structure. Together they create personal, alchemical arrangements that are full of love for the music and for the listener.

Swartz, a Massachusetts native, began studying piano at age six. He took a degree in composition from the Berklee College of Music in Boston. Among the many jazz musicians he has worked with are Jim Hall, Pat Metheny, Stan Getz, Phil Woods, Kenny Barron, Thad Jones, Jones, Gil Evans, and Art Farmer. His latest album as a leader is Urban Earth on the Gramavision label. Another is due out this fall.

It might seem that people don’t get their money’s worth with a bass and voice duo. Amazingly, though, nothing is missing in their collective sound. Of course, achieving a rich, full strength from just bass and voice is not an easy matter. “It takes a lot of work to make the bass and voice interesting, without having everything sound the same,” says Jordan, “and not missing the drums and piano. We work very hard at trying to make the material interesting, without making it sound the same way all the time. It’s very open, and it’s free.”

Jordan has been a pioneer of the bass/voice sound since she first worked with Steve Swallow in the mid-’50s. She also recorded an album, Sheila, with Arild Andersen, in the 1970s for Steeplechase Records. And she and Swartz have recorded as a duo before, on Old Time Feeling (Palo Alto Records). “I always gravitate toward the bass,” she says. “It’s my favorite instrument. My voice is more suited to the bass than any of the other instruments. There are ranges in my voice that I can’t sing with a full rhythm section sometimes. There are delicate parts of my voice that for some reason I can’t hear or feel all the time when I’m with a full rhythm section.”

She and Swartz reach lofty planes of musical skill. They’ve even had experiences performing together that border on the cosmic. “I’ve had moments singing with Harvie,” she recalls, “where it’s as though I totally left my body. One can remove oneself, if everything else is right. If you get two of those highs in your life, consider yourself lucky.”

Southline, September 10, 1986

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