Still a jazz childat eighty-six, Sheila Jordan – who performed in her duo with bassist Cameron Brownlast night at Ironworks in Vancouver – has a vitality and playful joy that show no signs of abating. Her two sets consisted of well-developed material – medleys of standards and classic bebop, peppered with a few originals – that she’s been performing for decades, emerging primarily out of her work with Harvie Swartz. That said, every song sounds thoroughly fresh, immediate and compelling. Her lower register has taken on a little grain, but her lilting scat lines, the chirrup and purl that are hallmarks of her vocals, are undiminished: the lightly off-kilter cadences of her improvisations are as intimately compelling and as warmly engaging as they have been since her stunning 1962 debut record, Portrait of Sheila (where she defines close relationship to the bass – in this case, Steve Swallow – that comes to shape her music for the subsequent half-century).
We all have our favourite Sheila Jordan records; aside from Portrait of Sheila, which is an indisputably essential album for any collection, I love The Crossing (1984, on Blackhawk) and her performance on Steve Swallow’s settings of Robert Creeley poems, Home (1980, ECM): I often find myself unexpectedly humming “Sure, Herbert . . . ” out of the blue. Despite what can sometimes feel like a timbre of quiet restraint, Sheila Jordan’s voice attains a peculiar resonance; it stays with you, softly plangent and quickly sonorous. The performances last night closely matched the material on Celebration (2005, High Note), which is I think the first live recording of her work with Cameron Brown, but you could never tell that this music was over a decade old. This is late work, for Jordan, certainly, but it’s also vivacious and exuberant; aside from some street noise coming through the club walls, the audience was so quiet and intensely focused on the music you could hear Cameron Brown’s fingers brush along the strings of his instrument.
A Sheila Jordan gig offers enraptured attentiveness, a focused close listening, but she’s also just so infectiously happy, laughing and larking through each song. Commenting on the flubs she sometimes makes in her “old age,” she said there was no need “to get uptight about it. As long as your heart and soul are in it, it doesn’t matter.” She and Cameron Brown started off with an introductory blues – “And so I’ll sing of joy and pain for you / With all the happiness this melody brings” – followed by a standard, “Better Than Anything.” A version of “It’s You or No One” came next, which Brown had also recomposed by adding a new, boppish melody to the changes, and re-naming it “Sheila, It’s You.” Cameron Brown is an extraordinary bassist, his fleet and virtuosic lines emerging from a depth that recalled Charles Mingus. (Shelia Jordan opened the second set with an anecdote about singing in duo with a bassist for the first time when she was sixteen and Charles Mingus called her onto the stage to do a version of “Yesterdays”; they also offered a take, amid a tribute to Billie Holiday, on Mingus’s “Goodbye Porkpie Hat.”) There was a medley of dance-themed tunes dedicated to Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire (“I loved this cat, I’d walk two miles to see him dance . . .”), and another medley of songs associated with Oscar Brown Jr. that included her wonderful version of Bobby Timmons’s “Dat Dere” (which also appears, in tribute to Sheila Jordan, on Rickie Lee Jones’s Pop Pop). To set up her “Blues Medley for Miles” (“Blue Skies,” “All Blues” and Jon Hendricks’s transcription of the trumpet solo from “Freddie Freeloader”), she told a story of Billie Holiday sitting in a dark corner of a club warbling out “Miiiiiiiiles, Miiiiiles” while Davis soundchecked in a basement club in New York: he apparently asked if a stray cat had got into the room, which she thought was hilarious. Sheila Jordan – her music and her persona – is all about jazz history, recounting stories of her encounters with musicians in the 1950s, especially Charlie Parker. She did versions of what might have been “Yardbird Suite” – I’m a little slow on the uptake sometimes – and what was definitely “Scrapple from the Apple”; Bird, sixty years after his death, was still a keen and powerful presence. She also gestured at her own Seneca heritage, vocalizing in an American Indian style to frame a version of the Jimmy Webb country ballad “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress.” She acknowledged that the Seneca Queen Alliquippa was her great-great-great grandmother, – and so, she said, if it hadn’t been for Columbus she might have been royalty. The second set closed with an invitation to guitarist Bill Coon to join Jordan and Brown for a trio version of her anecdotal “Sheila’s Blues.” She offered her healing, restorative song of recovery, “The Crossing,” as an encore. As she left the stage, she laughed and called out to everyone: “Have a beautiful life, and if I don’t see you again, I’ll meet you in heaven.” Her music and her voice offered us all a gift of affirmation and of colloquial joy.