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Sheila Jordan by Tessa Souter


New York singer Tessa Souter has sent LondonJazz this piece about her friend and mentor Sheila Jordan’s performance at the Royal Opera House yesterday.

When Sheila Jordan fills in for Kevin Mahogany in the Four Brothers vocal group with Kurt Elling, Mark Murphy and Jon Hendricks, the band is renamed Three Brothers and a Mother. Perfect. Because Sheila Jordan is a mother, not only to her beloved actual daughter, Traci Jordan, but to every musician, and (quite possibly) audience member who has ever been lucky enough to come under her influence.

This was much in evidence yesterday afternoon at her concert in front of a full house (which included vocalist Norma Winstone) at the Royal Opera House — from the motherly way she introduced her band (making each of them take a “proper bow”, encouraging them to actually scat a chorus, leaning over every now and then to hug, or receive a kiss from pianist Brian Kellock), to the way she spoke to the crowd.

“Never give up on your dream!” she said. “I was 58 when I was able to give up my day job!” Actually, she was fired, she told me recently. And as she was going down in the elevator in tears, she heard a voice within her saying, “This is what you asked for! Why are you crying!” She hasn’t looked back since.

Where other singers have soul, Sheila Jordan has heart. At 81, she is not a pyrotecnician, like, say, fellow octegenarian Cleo Laine. Her singing is not so much an exhuberant celebration of technique as an extremely musicial, direct communication from her heart to yours. Visibly exhausted between songs — more tired than I have ever seen her (she’s just coming to the end of a long international tour) — she miraculously rallied for the duration of each, making you hear everything as if for the first time, really noticing, no, understanding the lyrics.

It’s a way of being that makes you feel as if every word she speaks and sings is a message for you and you alone. When she sings ‘Dat Dere’, which she sings at every concert, and dedicates to her daughter Traci, we are her children. Her rendition of ‘You Must Believe in Spring’ is a heartfelt exhortation to all of us to (like her) keep going, even when the going is tough. At the end of the concert she came out into the audience away from the mic to thank everyone. I would guess most of the crowd couldn’t hear a word she said. But everyone was touched.

After the concert, a long line of people (some in tears) waited patiently to take it in turns to tell her that her message got through. “I’m going to take up painting again!” said one 50-something man, who confessed to being a procrastinator. “When?” asked Sheila, as sternly as a mum to her teenage son. “Oh, I’ve got lots of things to do. Probably in three weeks,” he said. “Well, make sure you do!” she said.

In life, as in her music, she is there for you, like a good mother. Tired. Exhausted. She nevertheless rallied for us, singing better than ever, so that, unless you knew her well, you might not even have known how exhausted she was in comparison to her usual self. If she were English, where we do such things, she would have been annointed a National Treasure, or made into a Dame by now. As it is, for jazz aficianados the world over, she is an International Treasure.

Sheila Jordan doesn’t just sing, she blesses you with her singing and with everything she is. Yesterday’s concert was as beautiful a demonstration of that as I’ve ever seen. Not merely a concert, but a blessing.

Tessa Souter ‘s third CD Obsession (Motéma Music) , recorded in New York, was released in August.

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3 replies »

  1. I am not sure where Tessa Souter was sitting in the Paul Hamlyn Hall, but off the centre aisle near the back, whilst it was evident that some high-quality music-making was going on, most of what my wife and friends were able to hear was so muddied by the accoustics and inadequate amplification in this totally inappropriate venue that we quickly gave up any hope of appreciating the finer points of the performance. Booming bass, clattering drums, even Brian Kellock's exuberant piano was mainly lost in a miasma of echo and reverberation. As for the 'confiding subtleties' of Sheila Jordan (in John Fordham's brilliant description), I was hugely grateful for the occasional slow number, particularly when bass and drums dropped out (the exquisite Kenny Dorham number was the highlight in this respect).
    Whoever chose this venue for Jordan, normally used as a restaurant and reception area I understand, should have his (or her) head – and ears! – examining. What should have been a highlight of this year's LJF ended up as a near-total disaster, for us four listeners at least. Thank goodness for the albums!

  2. What a drag for you. I got there early and was sitting at the FRONT! Second row slightly to Sheila's left. I am assuming that the tearful people waiting in line to worship her at the end were also sitting in a good position. As for the “occasional” slow number … er … that would be at least 60% of her set. Let's hope the Bull's Head will be better sound on Wednesday, when she celebrates turning 81. Let THAT one be the highlight. See you there!

  3. This is a really beautiful and meaningful appreciation – which I appreciate!

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