Sheila Jordan: A Life of Honest Expression

Joao Moreira dos Santos By

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AAJ: In 1977 you release your first album in duo with a bassist, Sheila (Steeplechase), accompanied by Arild Andersen, which was in fact the prelude to other duet partnerships with bass players, like Harvie Swartz and Cameron Brown. This is really your preferred method of working, isn't it?

SJ: I met Arild in Norway. This was also thanks to George Russell. George had arranged for me to do a festival and I met all of the wonderful Scandinavian musicians. Arild was one of them. I had been doing bass and voice any chance I could in NYC so at one point I asked Arild if he would like to record with me for Steeplechase Records. We had done a few gigs in Norway with the bass and voice. He agreed and we recorded Sheila.

I have since done quite a few more duo recordings. My two latest are with Cameron Brown. One is called I've Grown Accustomed to the Bass (High Note, 2000) and the last recording is called Celebration (High Note, 2005). To get back to my reason for wanting to sing with the bass only... I don't feel I have to push. Ideas and improvisation comes much easier. I never felt it was an unorthodox way to present music. If singers can sing with just a piano then why not just a bass? You have to be careful with pitch though. I work very hard on arrangements (head arrangements). I have to trust the musician I'm with. I work off of trust and silence.

Bass and voice is not easy to accomplish musically and creatively in a loud atmosphere. You really have to be tuned in to each other and that is why silence is the other instrument in a sense. When I asked Harvie if he would be interested in forming the first working bass and voice duo he agreed with the stipulation that we rehearse every week. This we did. Even though Harvie has left to do his own music I continued this combination and found Cameron Brown to take over Harvie's part of the duo.

I rehearse a lot the same way with Cameron. Lots of rehearsals and working out musical ideas which allow us to venture into other unexplored musical territories. It is a very exciting approach to music but again you both have to be dedicated and you must give complete trust to each other. This is without a doubt my favorite way to sing and I don't do it because it's different, I do it because I truly feel and hear the music this way. One last thing: the secret behind the complete communication for me is listening.

AAJ: It's now late '70s and your popularity is increasing and we find you recording with Steve Kuhn, whose quartet you join. How did you meet Steve and start singing with him?

SJ: I met Kuhn in the '60s I believe. I used him on a few gigs but didn't really get a group with him or record with him until the beginning of the '80s I believe. We recorded Playground (1979—all Kuhn Originals) and Last Year's Waltz (1981—live from Fat Tuesdays) and they were both for the ECM label. He asked me to be part of his group and we called it the Steve Kuhn/Sheila Jordan Band.

Bob Moses was the drummer and Harvie S. (originally Swartz) was the bassist. We toured for a few years together with that band but again we did not have proper representation so it sort of fell by the wayside. I still continued to do gigs with Kuhn when I was able to hire my own group and these would be advertised as Sheila Jordan with the Steve Kuhn Trio. I still work and record with Kuhn when I decide to do a record date. My latest recordings with Steve are: Jazzchild (1999) and Little Song (2003) on High Note. He is beginning to get the recognition he so justly deserves. He is a great accompanist and has been my dearest friend for the past 40-plus years.

AAJ: In 1993 you recorded Heart Strings (Muse) accompanied by a string quartet. Was it a dream come true?

SJ: Heartstrings was a dream come true. I had wanted to do a string quartet since I heard Bird with strings all those many years ago. I had tried to find someone interested in it but it didn't work out. I kept thinking I was a bit over the top and then I heard Stan Getz's Focus (Verve, 1961), and I knew it could be done.

I had to wait awhile. Joe Fields, who has always been in my corner, had Muse Records at the time and said he would be very happy to do a string quartet project. I knew Allan Broadbent from gigs I had done with him in the past and asked him if he would be interested in such a project. He said he would be but wasn't sure if he could. I knew he could so I gave him the tunes and he arranged them for the string quartet and came to New York and we recorded the project.

The recording wasn't totally string quartet. There were a few duos with piano and voice and trio but the main focus was the string quartet. Allan wrote wonderful charts. Today he is the top string arranger. How about that! I probably couldn't afford him today.... [smile]. I might add I am still doing string quartet projects. There is a wonderful string quartet in Vancouver, B.C. called the Babayaga String Quartet. The leader is a cello player named Harold Birston. He is wonderful. I was introduced to him by a young festival promoter who called me for his festival and wanted me to do the string project. I said I didn't have a quartet at the time and he recommended Harold's group. The rest is history. Harold does wonderful arrangements for me and hopeful we will record an audio [CD} and DVD soon. I also work with a string quartet in Italy. I am very blessed.

AAJ: In Celebration: Live at the Triad you sing, "If it wasn't for jazz music I wouldn't be alive today. You did go through a lot of personal problems during your life. What happened and what was "The Crossing for the blues?

SJ: I sing about music saving my life in "Sheila's Blues. The reason I sing this is because close to 30 years ago I was going through a period in my life where my drinking got out of control. Coming from a family of alcoholism (my mother died from the disease) it didn't take long for me to develop a very serious drinking problem. I quit on my own for eight years but turned to the use of cocaine. A powerful drug. At the time I didn't believe you could become addicted to cocaine. I didn't drink anymore but I used cocaine when I could afford it.

All I did was change seats on the Titanic. From booze to drugs. No future in that but my self-confidence was shot and it was a very dark period of my life. I had a spiritual awakening one night. It was a message that came to me loud and clear which stated, "I gave you a gift to share with the world but if you don't respect and take care of it, I will take it away from you and give it to someone else." It was a Higher Power coming through me. I know this today. I went for help and have been clean and sober now for 21 years. It was at this time when I first became sober and found help that I wrote "The Crossing". I am one of the lucky ones. I stay sober one day at a time. There is help out there if we want it.

AAJ: Besides really living the words you sing you also scat and even make up lyrics on stage on the spot. How do you see yourself, as a singer or a jazz musician for whom the voice is like a saxophone or a trumpet?

SJ: I am a messenger of jazz song. I am a singer. Had I wanted to be an instrumentalist I would have learned an instrument. I phrase like a horn player because of listening at an earlier age to my guru Bird. I learn the songs exactly as they are written first. The making up of lyrics is part of the improvisation. They usually tie into the meaning of the song. Like "Everything Happens to Me." I sing that song the way it was written and then tell stories, with the chord changes, of things that have happened to me, good or bad.

I don't really plan on making up lyrics but it is my way of talking to my audiences. Scatting comes from my early days with Skeeter and Mitch and listening to Bird's recordings. His compositions didn't always have lyrics so I learned to sing without lyrics because I loved him and his music so much.

AAJ: OK, let's move on to some straight questions and simple answers. The thing you resent most in you career?

SJ: I have no resentments in my career. I never planned to get this far with the music. I consider myself very lucky and fortunate to be able to carry the message.

AAJ: The best jazz musician ever?

SJ: The best jazz musician? You've got to be kidding... Charlie Parker of course... who else for me? The Bird.

AAJ: The best jazz album ever, except your own (of course!)?

SJ: I never think my records are great. I am very critical of myself... I would say Bird's "Just Friends" solo on the string recording [Bird with Strings (Columbia, 1950)] , Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1959) and Miles Ahead (Columbia, 1957) by Miles Davis.

AAJ: The best male jazz singer?

SJ: I love Jon Hendricks. I think he is a genius of the vocalese. There are many others I love too but Jon is truly blessed.

AAJ: A female jazz singer you identify yourself with?

SJ: I don't identify myself with any jazz singers. The closest would of course be Billie Holiday because of her deep emotion and conviction.

AAJ: Your most memorable concert ever?

SJ: All of them. They are always wonderful.

AAJ: Your worst show ever?

SJ: When I fell on my face years ago singing "Sweet Georgia Brown." I finished the tune and tripped on the microphone cord and fell flat on my face.

AAJ: The best concert hall or club you ever played at?

SJ: There is a music hall in Cohoes, NY called the Cohoes Music Hall. I did a concert there and the sound was incredible. The stage had a slant to it due to its age but boy what a place to perform.

AAJ: A country or venue you still want very much to sing in?

SJ: Any country or place that will accept me for who I am and what I do. I would like to work more in America. Most of my tours are in Europe and Asia.

AAJ: Your favorite song/standard?

SJ: Any song I sing is my favorite. I can't pick one special song. They are all my favorites. That's why I learn them and sing them.

AAJ: Your favorite composer?

SJ: Again, I have so many. I do love the songs Ivan Lins writes and sings. They are not songs I would sing myself due to not knowing the language but I love to hear him sing his songs.

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