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Live Reviews

Art of Jazz Celebration 2008: A Tale of The Sorcerer and The Storyteller

By Published: June 19, 2008
The afternoon, however, belonged to Sheila Jordan and Steve Kuhn, as they graced the Dancemakers' Studio, an acoustically wonderful loft in the Distillery's Building 74. Jordan is one of two surviving American griots, storytellers who live the music and have adapted the epic storytelling manner, incorporating the blues, which incidentally seems to bubble in their arteries and veins! Abbey Lincoln is the other singer whose music appears to traverse many lifetimes in three or four or five short minutes. Today the griot tradition exists only in cultures where Western Civilization has not tainted those cultures beyond recognition—on the African continent, for instance. Jordan brings to the music a life lived as large as Bird and Dizzy and Max Roach and Bud Powell and Abbey Lincoln. Her Native American Heritage, years in Detroit, then in mining towns of Pennsylvania before making the jazz pilgrimage to New York in search of Bird gives her that distinctive voice. One to whom pitch is unimportant as long as the music speaks to the heart and appeases the Spirit. Her voice is truly God-given. It is a voice that does not seem to reside in her body, but somewhere in a spiritual space, waiting to be summoned down in song, to narrate heartache and joy in a life gloriously lived— communicating the blues in the idiom of jazz! For Jordan this is specially unique as she imbues that Native sensibility of communing with The Great Spirit, which enables her to hang a note on a sound of varying pitch, hold it and wobble it and, in just one breath, turn deep sorrow into pure joy, with such a subtle change in inflection that you can hear this only with your heart!

Sheila Jordan found at a very early age that loneliness and heartache could be overcome by singing. When she was a child in Pennsylvania, she heard bebop music and Charlie Parker in particular. "This is what I want to do," she said. And she proceeded to study harmony and theory with Lennie Tristano and Charles Mingus. Legend has it that Charlie Parker wrote, "Chasin' the Bird" for her, as she and her friends were known to follow him around in the 1940s. Jordan immortalized this story in "Sheila's Blues," which she performed at the Dancemakers' Studio to an audience that she had moved more often than not, in tears of joy! Jordan pioneered the art of the duo, singing first with Mingus, one night at a club in New York, then Arild Anderson, whom she met when teaching at City College in 1975... The album was Sheila, and it immortalized the Voice/Bass Duo sessions with her take on Parker's "Confirmation." Later she also performed with Harvey S and then—after meeting him on gigs with the trombonist, Roswell Rudd—the irrepressible bassist Cameron Brown. Her most celebrated recordings were made (and she continues to make them) with Brown, including I've Grown Accustomed to the Bass. In the mid 1970s Jordan also met Steve Kuhn and began a long working relationship with one of the finest pianists in jazz.

Sheila Jordan and Steve Kuhn crafted one of the 2008 Art of Jazz Celebration's finest performances, with songs sung from decades of music. The heart did stop beating and started listening when Jordan sang her immortal composition "Jazz Child," a principally wordless tune based on changes that glide telescopically into each other as a range of emotions abound in the room where it is sung. (There is a poem, written in tribute to Jordan, by Marria Banks) and Jordan and Kuhn, well...immoprtalized this song on the eponymous album (HighNote, 1998). The second set at this Duo session began with a solo flight by Kuhn, and fly he did, like Icarus, close to the sun, but melting hearts—not wax, as the mythical figure did. Chaplin's "Smile" rendered in the purist Lydian mode, and Sonny Rollins' "Airegin," which featured Kuhn making breathtaking excursions into the heart of jazz. Jordan rejoined Kuhn to complete the performance, and she added her irrepressible humor to the proceedings with her rendition of Steve Kuhn's "The Zoo," which would have upstaged Dave Frishburg completely. And, just when you thought it was safe to put away your handkerchief, Jordan returned with "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress." Grown men have been known to cry, especially when the other Jimmy—Little Jimmy Scott—sang "Motherless Child..." and now Sheila Jordan and the song that she sang, Jimmy Webb's wry tale of pain. Sheila Jordan will turn eighty later this year. She is a rare treasure, and every fan of the music needs have a good listen every time she stops by to sing her songs from the great Book of Life.

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