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Sheila Jordan: The Bass/Voice Duets (Part 2)
by Ellen Johnson

This is the second half of a two-part article. The first half, which premiered last month, can be found here. The article incorporates excerpts from Ellen Johnson's forthcoming book, "Jazz Child: The Story of Sheila Jordan". We encourage you to support this project by donating at http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1474396873/jazz-child-the-sheila-jordan-story

After her separation from bassist Harvie S, Sheila Jordan was adamant that she wouldn’t give up on the idea of the bass and voice duo. After all it was an idea she had been passionate about since her days singing with bassist Steve Swallow in the 1950s. Jordan’s love affair with the bass and voice duo was like most relationships, rewarding but not always easy. Besides venue owners and promoters, even the musicians had a difficult time imagining how a bass and voice could hold the attention of an audience in a concert or festival. However, whenever Sheila got booked for a bass and voice performance everyone was pleasantly surprised and satisfied. “Most people felt that the idea was too “out” and that it couldn’t be done. Then Peggy Lee came out with “Fever” and I started thinking that maybe I wasn’t so crazy after all,” commented Jordan. So  Jordan continued searching for a new partner who would share her enthusiasm and vision. The bassist that was able to fulfill that role was Cameron Brown.

Oddly enough Jordan had wanted to start a duo with Brown when she heard him play back in the 60s. They performed one bass and voice gig for the opening of an art show by Jacki Clipsham. The duo never took off because Brown became involved with a group with Archie Shepp, George Adams and Don Pullen. The two did play together from time to time in other groups and Brown was the bass player on Jordan’s second album, “Confirmation.” “Cameron was thrilled to work with me on the bass and voice project and willing to rehearse,” said Jordan. “Besides being a great duo partner he is a very caring and considerate person. He constantly supports everything I do and that means so much to me.” Since that time the two have performed nationally and internationally with their unique bass and voice program.

In 1997, Jordan joined Brown as part of an ensemble for a tour of concerts in Belgium. At the final concert in Bruges they decided to do a voice and bass set that became their first official public concert as a duo. The concert was recorded and became their debut album cleverly titled, ”I’ve Grown Accustomed To The Bass.” In the liner notes, Brown told Joel E. Siegel that the recording was
“a document of exactly what happened that night with minimal editing. I’m pleased with it, especially with Sheila’s ability to reach out to the audience, to make them laugh and to move them, without compromising the quality of the music.”  Since it was their debut, Sheila relied on songs that she had done in the past with other bassists. She focused primarily on the connection that she and Brown were building and she wanted to share songs that were familiar and meaningful.

Jordan’s charming ability to use her story improvisations, both sung and unsung, to tell stories is highlighted on this recording. It is a trademark of Jordan to entertain an audience by coming up with “on the spot” comments related to a particular situation in a performance or during an improvised solo. On this particular
recording, several of those comments are included as tracks. Often these speaking and singing improvisations are equally as enjoyable as her songs. The two slide into a swinging version of “The Very Thought of You” and continue the momentum into the jazz waltz groove of “Better than Anything”. The latter track includes a scat improvisation on the vamp by Jordan. As she has done on previous recordings, Jordan delivers a poignant rendition of “Dat Dere” dedicating it to her daughter, and “all of your children and your grandchildren and the children that you’re going to have.” Brown knows how to support Jordan’s vocal antics adding his whimsical flair with slides and grunts.

On “Mourning Song” Jordan visits her Cherokee roots to set up a suite of songs dedicated to the musicians that have been influential in her life.  The first dedication is for Jordan’s guru, Charlie Parker, with her own lyrics to “Quasimodo” that sincerely capture the significance of the importance of Parker's music. The duo follows that with Gershwin’s “Embraceable You” acknowledging Parker’s use of those chord changes for “Quasimodo.” Jordan does one of her sparkling scat solos aptly demonstrating her bebop chops from years of singing Parker tunes. Then Jordan gets the entire audience to call and respond on several improvisations on the words, The Bird, Charlie Parker was his name, And bebop music was his fame. Brown then segues into the Charles Mingus composition, “Good Bye Pork Pie Hat,” a song dedicated to Lester Young. Since Lester Young and Billie Holiday were another dynamic jazz duo, Jordan includes a version of “Good Morning Heartache.” Jordan shines on ballads and this one is no exception with a moving interpretation from the very depths of her soul. The medley concludes with Thelonious Monk’s "Rhythm-a-ning.” This is where the duo proves that this honeymoon recording is destined for a long-term relationship. The two are playful and relaxed, listening and responding to each other's phrases in a collective conversation.  

On “Sheila’s Blues,” Jordan does one of her special story improvisations with a captivating the audience with her spontaneity and wit. What people may think Sheila lacks in vocal strength, she certainly makes up for in interpretation, invention, and subtle nuance. Jordan can hold an audience in the palm of her hand and open their hearts with an abundance of love. The last song is a tender yet humorous comment to Jordan’s affection for the bass, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to the Bass,” a nod to the Lerner and Lowe composition, “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face.” Her simple parody on the lyrics sums it all up,  I’ve grown accustomed to the bass, It almost makes my day begin, I’ve grown accustomed to the sound, I love it pound for pound, The highs the lows, The strings the bow.
Jordan is a master at programming her concerts, knowing exactly how to take the audience on a journey that both entertains and educates. Meanwhile, the solid foundation of Brown’s bass provides the frame for Jordan to paint her sonorous pictures and sing her heartfelt messages as we travel down the road.

During the Belgiu
m tour, Brown recorded his entire trio that featured Sheila singing a select number of songs, later becoming a two volume CD project entitled, “Here and How!”  Jordan is on Volume 2 along with Dave Ballou (trumpet, flugelhorn), Leon Parker (drums) and Brown. The majority of the songs are with the trio but there are some bass and voice moments with Brown and Jordan, one of which is “Mourning Song” with some exceptional bass work by Brown. In this version, Brown sets the mood by playing harmonics as Jordan comes in with an improvisation referring to her Native American roots. Then the two segue into a trio version of Brown’s original composition “George, Don, and Dannie,” dedicated to George Adams, Don Pullen, and Dannie Richmond. The only other bass and voice duo is a brief moment on “Confirmation” with Skeeter Spight’s hip lyrics about Jordan. This is an outstanding recording that needs much more attention for its originality and creativity.

Around 1997, Jordan met bassist Attilio Zanchi while performing with a trio at a festival in Edmonton, Canada. The following year she went on a tour in Italy with the E.S.P. Trio that featured Zanchi with Riccardo Parrucci (flute), Roberto Cipelli (piano), Gianni Cazzola (drums), Gloria Merani (violin), Alessandro Franconi (viola), and Filippo Burchietti (cello).  Portions of the tour were released on an album entitled “Sheila’s Back in Town” and featured Zanchi and Jordan doing a bass and voice duo on “Morning Song” and “Dat Dere.”  Strictly speaking, “Mourning Song” is not a duo, since the string section accompanies Jordan and Zanchi. Yet it is included here because the instruments provided a bold and mysterious texture to the familiar bass and voice piece. The segue to “Dat Dere” is seamless and Zanchi maintains a stellar rapport with Jordan as she creates swinging phrases and subtle nuances.

In 1999, Sheila and Zanchi did a duo bass concert (opening for Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock) at the Calgary Jazz Festival. James Muretich from the Calgary Herald wrote, “the opening duo of legendary vocalist Sheila Jordan and bassist Attilio Zanchi also demonstrated the timeless dynamics that exist even within the sparsest arrangements. The ageless Jordan, who began singing in the 1940s, scatted and improvised while Zanchi’s bass provided every note and nuance needed. Combined with warm, human touch between songs, just as with Hancock and Shorter, it was a night of jazz that left one wondering where the time went, if it ever existed at all.” The two clearly had a chemistry and sense of humor that would have been interesting to see develop over time. However, Sheila was committed to her new duo with Brown and the physical distance between the homes of Zanchi in Italy and Jordan in the US made further collaborations difficult.

The Jordan/Brown recordings resumed on November 17 and 18, 2004 with a live album of bass and voice duets recorded at The Triad in New York City. The album’s title, “Celebration” denoted Jordan’s 76th birthday party. The set opens Jordan saying she has the blues because she left her performance clothes at home. She then segues into the first tune, “Hum Drum Blues.” Jordan chose to revisit the song that she recorded in 1962 with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Denzil Best on her debut recording “Portrait of Sheila”. It’s obvious that the relationship between Jordan and Brown had grown deeply since their last outing. The comfort they share with each other can be heard through Jordan’s voice sailing across Brown’s expressive strings. The two have included new repertoire including a swinging version of “It’s You Or No One” and a haunting elegy “Brother Where Are You?” with lyrics by Oscar Brown Jr. The last song is dedicated to “all who are shunted aside for reasons of race, class or plain ignorance.” It begins with an emotional arco accompaniment and wordless vocal that turn into a well-crafted bass riff with a slow swing.

Jordan constantly acknowledges her profound love for the music of Miles Davis and has performed medleys of his music with a trio on past recordings. This is the first recorded version with bass and voice entitled, “Blues Medley For Miles,” and begins with “Blue Skies” in a 6/8 feel with a bass riff that segues neatly into “All Blues” with, once again, Oscar Brown, Jr. lyrics. The final tune in the medley is “Freddie Freeloader” with vocalese lyrics on the Miles solo by Jon Hendricks. Jordan sings a touching bossa nova version of Ivan Lins’ “The Promise of You” and the song concludes with a vamp featuring Jordan’s distinctive Native American chanting. In a medley of songs from films by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, the voice and bass kick up their feet as fluidly as the famous dance duo. This version adds two new songs, “I Won’t Dance” and “Pick Yourself Up”, to an earlier arrangement of this medley. This is an opportunity for Brown and Jordan to dig into the brilliance and wit of what makes this duo so intriguing.

Later on, the duo gives a nod to pianist Mal Waldron and vocalist Abbey Lincoln in the civil rights song of struggle, “Straight Ahead.” Jordan is no stranger to discrimination after having been in a biracial marriage in the early 1950s. As she says to the audience on the recording, “we have to keep these wonderful musicians music alive whenever we can, just be messengers, nothing else.” The Fats Waller Medley that Jordan did on a previous recording with Harvie S turns into “Fats Meets Bird Medley” with the addition of the Parker classic, “Scrapple From the Apple.”  All of the medleys on this recording have the sass and sophistication heard from past renditions seasoned with Brown’s solid technique and tonal warmth. On “Birks Works”, both Sheila and special guest vocalist Jay Clayton dazzle with their scat improvisations. Clayton starts off with her muted trumpeted quality and phrasing, then spirals out into her own style of free improvisation. Jordan starts her solo with a story improvisation then flies off into her own superb bebop phrasing as the two create counterpoint and harmonize to the final note. Then after a familiar walk down memory lane with “Sheila’s Blues” where she reminisces about her Detroit days, Jordan and Brown end their set with an encore of Jordan’s own composition about her road to recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, “The Crossing.” As of this date there are no other bass and voice duos with Brown but hopefully there will be another on the horizon in the near future. These two are fascinating in every aspect and are a brilliant example of the art of the bass and voice duo.

There is only one duet, “Dat Dere” in the live recording “Winter Sunshine” (Justin Time) from a performance in Montreal in 2008. The bassist was Kieran Overs and the rest of the trio featured Steve Amirault (piano) and André White (drums). It’s obvious that Jordan knows her way around the bass and feels comfortable no matter who is behind the wood. However, Jordan prefers to work exclusively with Cameron Brown stating, “I am musically married to Cameron. I might do one tune or improvise on a bebop tune during a performance with a bass player in the trio but that’s about it.”

Although Jordan has inspired many singers who share her love of bass and voice duets she feels strongly that the art of singing with the bass is a total dedication. “I don’t do the bass and voice to be different, she says. “I have a deep feeling for the bass and I feel totally involved when I’m singing with Cameron. It’s such a very special way to present music. I try to encourage young bass players and singers who want to present the music this way to rehearse and get their own thing happening.” Jordan recalls bass players she has shared wonderful duo experiences in trios or live performances with such as Steve LaSpina, Jon Burr, David Finck, and Mike Richmond among many others. She encourages other singers to carry on the tradition by providing workshops about the bass and voice duo all over the world. Her friend and colleague, Jay Clayton has done concerts with bassist Jay Anderson and Jon Burr.  Jordan acknowledges a few other singers who have been working on bass and voice duets like Katie Bull and Joe Fonda; Teri Roiger and  John Menegan, Lynn Stein and Jon Burr and myself (Ellen Johnson) and Darek Oles.

Yet, clearly there is no one that has devoted the time and effort to bringing the bass and voice duet to the level that Jordan has for the past 60 years. With the release of her latest recording, “Yesterdays” from a past live concert with Harvie S, we understand the important niche Jordan has carved out in the history of jazz and musical duets. Her voice will forever be revered and admired for her courageous contributions. In her own words, Jordan sums it up, “Rehearsal and trust are the two main ingredients and last but not least – don’t give up!”