Sheila Jordan & Steve Kuhn Trio at Birdland

Tyran Grillo BY

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Sheila Jordan & Steve Kuhn Trio
New York, New York
April 3, 2015

Sheila Jordan is a natural. Still going strong at 86, she does more than sing with her voice. She plays it like an instrument. Like any great jazz improviser, she bends notes to their expressive potential, traveling far but always returning home. Among few other musicians could this have been clearer than pianist Steve Kuhn, bassist Steve LaSpina, and drummer Billy Drummond, in whose finely attuned company she took Birdland by quiet storm.

Kuhn's own tunes bookended a gracious, 15-song set. The carefree observations of "Gentle Souls" and the quintessential sentiment of "Life's Backward Glance" drew a dotted circle, leaving room for everyone in the audience to fill in their own segments of appreciation. "It's wonderful to sing at a club named after my hero," crooned Jordan at one point in the opener, "and to sing with these beautiful musicians." Those words set an autobiographical fire, which she stoked throughout the evening. Whether dedicating "Ballad of the Sad Young Men" to the great Mark Murphy and "Whose Little Angry Man are You?" to all those little boys out there giving parents a run for their money, or riffing on her love for Ella Fitzgerald ("Lady be Good") and Charlie Parker, she gave us the portrait of a most self-reflective artist indeed. In the latter tune, she shared a memorable story about the Bird himself letting in a 14-year-old Jordan into Detroit's El Sino jazz club at the impressionable age of 14, prompting her to admit: "If it wasn't for jazz music, I wouldn't be alive today." She even paid tribute to her Native American heritage by framing her take on "The Moon is a Harsh Mistress" with a chant.

Even the most timeworn standards felt supple at her lips and revealed the bottomless talents of her band. Drummond showed expert finesse in "You Stepped Out of a Dream," while Laspina rounded every corner of "You or No One" with style. Kuhn, for his part, was the tonal center of it all, cleaning out every groove of an upbeat "I Remember You" and enhancing Jordan's authority of experience in the bittersweet "All or Nothing at All." And as the band played us out with "Good-Bye," it was clear that experience was also all that would remain when the last note was played.

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