Better Than Anything showcases Sheila Jordan in an unusual trio with bassist Harvie S and pianist Alan Broadbent (subbing for Jordan's go-to, Steve Kuhn). The latter two triangulate Jordan's incomparability with graciousness in this archival treasure, restored from a 1991 live recording at Kimball's East in Oakland. Yet the rarity of the combination is easily forgotten once the listener becomes aware of its interlocking geometry. The title song seals a foundation between the instrumentalists, Sheila scatting so fluidly throughout that she might as well be an instrumentalist herself. She glows between phrases with unforced conviction, even taking the time to introduce her band members through gifted equivoque. Jordan's and company bring a likeminded sense of community to the Charlie Parker tune "Confirmation," in which each voice unleashes its star, hers brightest of all.
Still, there's an underlying quality to Jordan's singing that makes it sometimes ashen. It renders each tune a dwelling, one in which she seems content to have lived this musical life, for she is always reinforcing one architectural detail or another with fresh turns of screws. She leaves the cobwebs alone in the process, interested as she is in the memories caught in each. Such is the bittersweet tonality she wears like a shawl, and it puts her a world apart from others who might attempt what she does at the microphone. Whether in duet with bass on "Waltz for Debby" or showing grace under pressure of tradition in her take on "Falling in Love with Love," she handles every lyric with undivided attention, thereby allowing herself the freedom of wordlessness to override her grasp of form.
Her bandmates match these downright spiritual undertones with respect not only for what has come to pass but also what has yet to be. "If I Had You" is all about the beauty of speculation, and narrows a limelight around Jordan through Broadbent's earful soloing and S's adaptive changes, while in Irving Berlin's "The Best Thing for You" she is likewise an idol of listening. In the bluesy lilt of Cole Porter's "I Concentrate on You," too, one hears illustrative powers at work as S's bass leaps across Broadbent's fluent carpet.
Another Porter classic, "You'd be so Nice to Come Home To," opens a medley through the better portion of Jordan's emotional résumé, from the dedicatory "Mourning Song" and the reverie of "Japanese Dream" to a revisiting of Berlin in "What'll I Do?" It sounds like the first time, made so much her own that it seeps from her very pores. At one moment flirtatious, the next maternal, she is a force of change. And even in "The Caterpillar Song," which ends the set on a plush bed of keys, she adopts an omnipotent tone, turning melancholy into prospect with just a few flaps of her wings.
Even those who weren't present at this concert should find it a nostalgic trip, if only because her singing always makes you feel like you were there, as inevitably as a sun must rise.
Better Than Anything; If I Had You; The Best Thing for You; I Concentrate on You;
Medley: You’d be so Nice to Come Home To/Mourning Song/Japanese
Dream/What’ll I Do?; Confirmation; Waltz for Debby; Falling in Love with Love; The
Sheila Jordan: vocals; Harvie S: bass; Alan Broadbent: piano.
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