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Michelle Lordi: Career Evolution

R.J. DeLuke By

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I think what I've been trying to do all this time is get people together and make art. —Michelle Lordi
Some artists are blessed to be born into situations where opportunities are at the ready. Education and training are easily obtainable. Maybe they have connections to the professional world, via their lineage or other friends. Even so, it's still up to them to produce and deal with the inevitable vagaries of their choice to pursue music as a career. For others, the process can be more gradual. The germ of being an artist is there, but it simmers and comes to the surface and rolls into a boil in a different manner. In any scenario, nothing circumvents the need for hard work, focus and perseverance.

For Philadelphia-based singer Michelle Lordi, her career started with a love of music as a child, but it didn't whisk her away into that world. There were no early instrument lessons. She had good music teachers in high school, but if there was a specter it had not yet come out from behind the curtain. It took time. Also persistence and hard work, and Lordi has no shortage of either.

"I'm a late bloomer. I didn't start music professionally until my late thirties," she says. But she has no regrets. And with a solid, and growing, roster of recordings behind her and the reputation she has built among top musicians, there is no need to look back. She has no such intentions.

"I think that if I had gone to a jazz school," she says, pausing for contemplation. "I feel like because I came to it a little later, I want it more. I don't want to say that against anybody. It's just my path. I know I want to be making music as much as possible."

She's succeeding, moving ahead with her career and evolving. She has in her sights a more personalized canvas on which to place her already personal sound. Her latest CD that came out late in 2019, Break Up With The Sound (Cabinet of Wonder Productions) is a step in that direction. She's forging a path in spite of obstacles—a fire at her home the day after Christmas 2017, in which she lost valuable personal items and music (her family— husband and three children, are fine), and the COVID-19 pandemic which has created challenges globally for people in all walks of life.

"It took me a long time to get to a place where I had the confidence to pursue this whole-heartedly," says Lordi. "I'm so grateful that I did and hope that it continues. But we all do what we have to do."

In high school, she sang at people's weddings and other such events. "I always could sing," she notes. But it was for enjoyment. Growing up she had experienced jazz music and it registered. One weighty encounter was with the music documentary Let's Get Lost, about Chet Baker, a trumpeter who remains an influence on Lordi up to today.

"I loved how the movie looked. I loved the story, and I loved his amazing approach to melody. How correct and how connected with the lyric he was," says Lordi. "I don't scat. I want to hear the words. I want to hear the emotion in the lyric... If there was a song he did, I would look it up and find other artists who did it and made my way to other amazing musicians. I started to amass a group of songs I really wanted to sing." It was years before she would actually do it.

She used to sneak into club called Ortlieb's as a teenager to take photographs. The club attracted noted jazz musicians. The likes of Shirley Scott or Mickey Roker might be found there. "It has completely and forever screwed me up," she quips, "because I figured that's what a house band should sound like. It was amazing and there were always wonderful musicians hanging around. I think that's where I first fell in love with jazz."

She went to college in New York, but not for music. She focused on visual arts. After, she worked in sales and marketing for a pharmaceutical company for 10 years "to pay the bills." She did immerse herself more in music, however, listening to bands like Talking Heads. Her influences are numerous and varied through the years, not confined to jazz. There are classics like Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, but also: Jo Stafford, Peggy Lee, June Christy, Julie London, Chris Connor, Blossom Dearie, Neil Young, Patsy Cline and instrumentalists like Bill Evans, Charlie Haden and Bill Frisell. Other bands include Radiohead, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, His Name Is Alive, The Cars and The Cure. People she has worked with, like Orrin Evans, J.D. Allen, Tim Motzer, Matthew Parrish and Rudy Royston also are important to her development

She worked during the day and started to raise a family. It wasn't an easy road. She didn't have a team promoting her and getting her gigs. It was old-fashioned, roll-up-your sleeves time. Lordi made her own CD, the result of doing some commercial jingles.

An old friend Lou Delise offered to produce my first album and asked which songs I wanted to sing. I thought about it a little bit. I went through my favorite Ella [Fitzgerald] and Chet Baker and Blossom Dearie songs. We made an album. He connected me with Tom Lawton who I ended up working with for years. Tom is a remarkable pianist. So I lucked out for my first foray. At the time I had a little tiny baby and a full-time job. I had a master of my CD and I would walk around. I'd take it to restaurants and I'd say, 'Do you want music here? Here is the master. Can I have it back when you're done listening?'" she says, chuckling at the recollection.

Some clubs took her up on it and she would get performances.

"I got to meet some really great musicians. Philadelphia is chock full of completely astounding talent. I got really lucky working with some wonderful people early on, who were my mentors. Like Larry McKenna, Sonny Troy and John Swana. Orrin Evans, even though he's younger than me, has been like a big brother who's been really great in helping me develop as a bandleader. Writing songs with Tim Motzer and Matthew Parrish. Having (Parrish) as a music director has allowed me to become a better entertainer and not have to be on the bandstand worrying about what's going on. Just be in the moment and perform to the highest level possible, knowing that he has my back and the band is together."

She started and directed a weekly jazz session in the Philly area at the Vintage Bar & Grill that ran for five years. It was a source of joy, with its occasional frustrations, to this focused entrepreneur.

"I made that session," she says. "Yeah, it's a pain in the butt, if my kid doesn't want to go to sleep. I made it so it was at a time I usually could get my kids to sleep before I go. Some nights it was really hard to leave my kids. Some nights it was a bit of a shit show because it was a session and sometimes a really bad horn player would show up and take over the bandstand. You had to learn to deal with some difficult situations, being a bandleader. Some nights the bassist didn't show up. Sometimes you'd have four trombonists. It's been a wild ride. Sometimes there were not enough people. Sometimes there are too many people."

"It's not always fun," she says. "But it's always wonderful."

Her early records, like Dream A Little Dream (self released, produced by Matthew Parrish, 2017) and Drive (self rroduced, produced by Orrin Evans2015) featured a lot of slow and medium tempos, exhibiting her lush take on ballads, many of them standards. Her style is plaintiff, with a pristine tone and little vibrato. It is rich and draws the listener in. Subtle changes in phrasing and dynamics. She's at ease and she communicates the lyric. She's still that way.

But Break Up With The Sound shows an evolving artist. There are a couple standards. Original songs that don't have a tie to the Great American Songbook. There are country songs. She is singer/songwriter from an age that isn't Tin Pan Alley. The songs are personal and enticing.

"It's less of a departure than it is me finding where I'm most comfortable," she says thoughtfully. "This album is where my heart is, which is in writing music, in having artists like the musicians who are the album interpret those originals. And taking standards, whether they are country standards or jazz standards, and finding a different way in. So that people can discover them in a different way."

"Poor Bird" is a poem put forth boldly over a choppy, enchanting rhythm. There's insistence, but no pathos. The original "Double-Crossed" has a hip sound that fits into the modern rock/pop book. Cool sophistication. "Red House Blues" is an ethereal journey. Standards like "Lover Man" are re-invented. The opening shrieks more than moans of love. The lyric is over a driving pulse by the band and her voice surely takes the tune in a new light.

The fire in her was also a factor in the changes. In a way, it helped usher in a conscious shift to explore things differently.

She explains, "I lost a lot of (original) music that wasn't replaceable. I lost a lot of music that I'd never put out. There was no reason not to put it out, except that I was afraid. I thought that it wasn't good enough. I would say that the album started with the fire. When the dust settled, I wished I could have those books filled with poems and song lyrics. Half-finished songs and things like that, so I could put them out even if they were not good enough. I realized it was better to have something that wasn't perfect than to have nothing."

In early 2018, she started to write and re-write songs that would be on the new album. "Some of them are 20 years old. Some of them I wrote in a moment, in a parking lot in the middle of 2018. Once I had a couple of the tunes finished, I went to the people that I love very much working with and pitched a concept."

Lordi got long-time collaborator Parrish, a sought-after bassist and /Princeton University faculty member, involved. Producer/arranger/saxophonist Donny McCaslin, Royston and Motzer were also brought in.

"I met Donny at a workshop. He had some really encouraging advice. We talked about genres." McCaslin has been stretching his career in recent years, including work with David Bowie. "I asked 'How do you exist inside and outside of jazz. It seems like you get kicked by the non-jazz people for being jazzy... He said, 'If you make art, you don't have to worry about genres. Just make art.' The really resonated for me. I think what I've been trying to do all this time is get people together and make art. That's what this album became."

The recording was smooth. "The standards are ones I've been working on with Matt and Tim. And we all love traditional country music, so it was not a big jump to do the Hank Williams and Patsy Cline songs. We went into the studio and we did all of the tracking for the album in two days. Then we spent more time engineering."

The cover art also comes from Lordi, getting back to skills that sat dormant for awhile. "My original path as a visual art was as a photographer. I hadn't made art of a visual sort in maybe 15-20 years. I also started drawing again and thinking about how to portray the music visually. What you see in the album is artwork and photography based on the music we made." Connecting the music to visual art is something she wants to pursue more strongly as she moves along.

For those listening for songs she's done, lik "I Fall In Love too Easily" or "Imagination," those are not entirely a thing of the past. "I get a lot of people saying, 'I love your balladry. Why are you leaving jazz?' But I'm not."

On March 11, she sang a song on an Orrin Evans album with Buster Williams on bass. "It's exciting and fun with great people. I'm not running away from what I love. But when you sit me down and I get my choice of musicians, I'm going to make a couple albums like this (Break Up With the Sound)."

She adds, "Now that I've recorded original songs, it frees me up to make an album of standards again. The thing I did with Orrin, I didn't go in to perform my music. I wanted to do standards with Buster Williams. When it's right and it's the right group of musicians." But on her quest, "I love writing. I have some songs I'm really excited about performing. I'll probably record them and put them out. The pressure is off. I'm happy to make music based on jazz standards. At the same time, with originals, I think of it as a concept. I think about the personnel. Who I'd want for that."

Touring with the new music is out of the question while coronavirus issues still grip the nation and the world. "I miss touring because I miss the musicians I tour with. I miss meeting new people," she says. "I'm studying more. I'm getting into music I haven't had time to get into. Trying to write. Trying to find ways to play music with people when you can't be in the same room. Hopefully we won't have to do that for too long.

"What does it mean to be a musician? To me it's getting people together, promoting other artists, promoting yourself, working on your checklist and making sure you have contacts when you do have a new project. I have three or four projects backlogged. I hope to get them out over the summer," says Lordi. "Opportunities? you have to go out and carve them out yourself. I feel like everybody's in the same boat now. We're all carving out what we can. Everybody's stretching. It's kind of sad. But it's kinda fun to watch artists in their natural habitat, which is change and chaos. I wish I were quarantined with my band. I wish I had a full rhythm section here. I don't. But I'm working ways around that.

"Who knows what we'll have to do to make ends meet at this point. But I know I'm not going to ever stop making music... I like the people. The history. The connection with elders. I like the village aspect of it. I like making music with people that have such immense talent that every single song is different every single time you play it. Connected to a deep feeling. That's why I like jazz."

Photo Credit: Matthew Parrish

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