REVIEW: Sheila Jordan's 90th Birthday at Pizza Pheasantry (2018 EFG LJF)

Sheila Jordan and Cameron Brown
Photo credit: Paul Wood


Sheila Jordan
Pizza Express Pheasantry. 19 November 2018. 2nd night of 2. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Lauren Bush)

“I’ve Grown Accustomed To The Bass” is the name of Sheila Jordan’s first adventure with Cameron Brown on the bass. And accustomed she certainly is. Jordan is hailed for being the master of the bass/voice duo, and in 1997, she and Brown began a partnership that has continued 18 years on.

Sunday 18 November was Jordan’s 90th Birthday and the first of her two nights at the Pheasantry Pizza Express in Chelsea. Sunday’s gig was advertised as Jordan’s big birthday party, but the party continued the next night with a room packed with adoring fans, mostly singers, who have followed her career and wanted to be a part of this special occasion.

With a career that has spanned more than 70 years, Jordan is famous for her friendship and deep affection for Charlie Parker, calling him “The Bird” in many of her tunes and even attributing her survival to his sax playing. She tells the story about how hearing him play when she was very young made her want to sing more than anything else.

Sheila graced the stage with the signature flower in her bob and explained how her affinity for the bass/voice duo began when Charles Mingus persuaded her to get up and sing with him in a club in Toledo, Ohio many years before on the same song they were playing now – Yesterdays – same key, even, she said.

She jumped in, improvising lyrics and scatting with Brown walking behind her. The ease of their relationship was felt throughout the room. Continuing with each song, Jordan spoke to the audience like they were all old friends. Her humorous and welcoming nature made it impossible not to want more. Her knowledge of the music, the lyrics and the history of jazz and bebop had everyone on the edge of their seats.

There was a mixture of memorable songs like The Very Thought of You, a compilation of “dance” tunes in honour of Fred Astaire including I Won’t Dance, Cheek to Cheek and Let’s Face the Music and Dance, but there were also favourites of Brown and Jordan like a personalised version of It’s You or No One where Brown played a melody on the bass that he had written to play before Jordan sang the words. They then weaved the two melodies together and it was a real pleasure to hear them show how their individual talents complement the other so beautifully.

After playing for more than an hour, Sheila assured her audience she would be back for a second set but not before one last reminder – stay positive, hang on to your dreams and always follow them. “Do it, Man,” she said casually, before singing Look for the Silver Lining.

In the second set, Jordan included some more recognisable tunes from their duo repertoire, including I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face and a medley including her well known version of Bobby Timmons’ song Dat Dere. She also talked about her Native American heritage and which introduced the Seneca chant at the start of her tune Mourning Song. There were also a few tunes that Brown introduced to the audience, explaining how he and Sheila were acquainted to so many different musicians and how they would come across music - often after Sheila had been encouraged to write words to someone else’s melodies, as with Don Cherry’s song Art Deco and a song based on a poem by Robert Creeley called Home.

At all times it is evident that Jordan’s knowledge of how to use her voice as an instrument is extensive, pushing and pulling notes, always thinking of ways to showcase the lyrics and the bass, all while making it all sound so easy. At times she would reach high up into her top range and even use squawking sounds like a bird (maybe like the Bird…) and through it all the smile never left here face.

The evening was sheer joy. Her passion for jazz is infectious and as long as she’s around, anyone can catch the bebop bug.

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