Think of Sheila Jordan's voice as a (thankfully, miraculously) wayward child who has managed to resist even the most benign adulterations. That's how it retains an odd power to recast traditional notions of beauty and merit. Like Billie Holiday--whom she resembles in spirit though not in style or manner--Jordan rejects the merely pretty. Instead she finds the improvised notes that nobody else wanted and revels in the naked purity of her unorthodox instrument. She first attracted critical attention through a 1962 recording of "You Are My Sunshine" with the iconoclastic composer-theorist George Russell. Even then her voice had its distinctive reedy elasticity, which she still exploits with untamed swoops and surprising melodies. When she improvises Jordan often lets the notes slide into moans and the words slur into blowsy chatter, blurring the edges to create a beckoning, if slightly scary, dream landscape. (These sinuous melismas--along with her rhythmically tense scat solos--helped teach the next two generations of jazz vocalists to shed their musical cages and emotional inhibitions.) When she wrings the essence out of a line, her alterations highlight the strength of the original melody--if it were not so strong, it could never support her expansive, discursive departures. Jordan has made the Green Mill an annual haunt, which has only increased her stature among those vocalists who regard her as a saint: don't be surprised if she invites one or two of them onstage for an impromptu duet. Friday, 9 PM, and Saturday, 8 PM, Green Mill, 4802 N. Broadway; 878-5552.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lauren Deutsch.