Sheila Jordan | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Sheila Jordan 

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Many jazz musicians have had some Native American blood (Jim Pepper, Oscar Pettiford, Art Farmer, Benny Golson, Duke Ellington), but Indian strains in jazz are usually too submerged for listeners to recognize, or they're reduced to caricature--a boom-bum-bum-bum tom-tom introducing "Cherokee," for instance. Singer Sheila Jordan, part Cherokee herself, digs deeper, evoking Native American chants while scatting a chorus or leading into a solo. Her dips and swoops, shake vibrato, and varied dynamics raise the homage above cartoon cliche. That she can make this work even on an intro to the Beatles' "Blackbird"--on her new Little Song (HighNote), recorded with pianist Steve Kuhn's trio and occasional guest trumpeter Tom Harrell--shows her amazing knack for staying tasteful in situations that would bring out the kitsch in anyone else. Her voice has deepened since she cut her debut, Portrait of Sheila, for Blue Note in 1962, but in many ways her style's unchanged. She's always sung with girlish enthusiasm, making wide turns around open vowels and radiating good cheer. Her all-American voice is pleasant but not particularly big, and she's most comfortable in a range near her speaking voice; those qualities make her singing extraordinarily direct, and her whispery ballads convey vulnerability more than they beckon come hither. Which is not to underestimate her chops--she can still race around a bebop maze by her lifelong hero Charlie Parker and pounce on a flatted fifth from afar. Jordan is awfully fond of mentioning her age onstage--she's 74--but she sounds so good in that decade when many singers fade that you can't fault her. On a subdued "Something's Gotta Give," she gives new resonance to the phrase "an old immovable object like me." Pianist Bradley Williams, bassist Dan DeLorenzo, and drummer Mike Schlick will back her up. Friday, March 14, 9 PM, and Saturday, March 15, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 773-878-5552.

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