Sheila Jordan revisits 'Better Than Anything'

BRATTLEBORO — On Saturday at 8 p.m., the Vermont Jazz Center will present NEA Jazz Master Sheila Jordan in a performance with pianist Alan Broadbent and bassist Harvie S. All three are musicians of the highest caliber who have spent years together using the great American Song book as their canvas. Sheila paints with her voice and Alan and Harvie use their instruments to individually create a rich palette of colors and textures. They give us collective art. Collaboratively the trio comes together to merge their vision: They focus meticulously over predetermined song forms infusing them with what appears to be an uncanny sense of freedom. Their playful interactions are deeply grounded, they are dependent upon an adherence to form, a deep respect for the jazz lineage and a working knowledge of its language. Their spontaneity and unfettered flow of creativity are supported by their open minds, athleticism of ideas and wisdom earned over decades of experience. Even though the trio may be presenting an arrangement that they have played hundreds of times, they view each performance as an opportunity to fuse their voices and create something completely different. Each individual's unselfish dedication to the trio's overall sound results in performances that are consistently fresh, surprising and invigorating.

Sheila Jordan felt that a show at the Vermont Jazz Center could showcase a recently discovered recording of this trio's performance from 25 years ago at Kimball's East in Oakland California. It is revealing to listen closely to this newly released CD. The CD, "Better than Anything," which illuminates this trio's magic, demonstrates their comfort with each other, their soul-filled improvisational forays and their mastery of their instruments. Tyron Grillo of All About Jazz waxed poetic by noting that Sheila "renders each tune a dwelling, one in which she seems content to have lived this musical life she handles every lyric with undivided attention, thereby allowing herself the freedom of wordlessness to override her grasp of form."

"Better than Anything" is musically beyond reproach, but it also serves as a vehicle to appreciate an overarching theme that colors Jordan's career: Paying homage to jazz's legacy. Jordan is one of the few remaining active performers who grew up during the bebop era and she never misses an opportunity to educate her audience about the importance of bebop in the development of jazz. She always tells glowing stories about her mentor Charlie Parker before singing one of his compositions. Her master-classes are filled with anecdotes about his brilliance and kindness. Ellen Johnson, in her heart-felt biography written with Sheila Jordan, writes that Sheila's "years of immersion in Parker's solos began early and her ability to sing them and even write lyrics to some of them deepened her understanding of soloing on chord changes. In fact, her mastery of bebop changes and phrasing contributes in no small part to her reputation as one of the world's finest improvisational singers."

Although Jordan was a constant companion of such major figures as Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Miles Davis and Charlie Parker, she also champions lesser-known creative minds who were involved with the evolution of bebop during its nascent years. These include people she knew intimately like Herbie Nichols, Barry Harris, Skeeter Spight as well as her ex-husband Duke Jordan. On her CD "Better than Anything," at the end of Cole Porter's "You'd be So Nice to Come Home To." Sheila improvises over a beautiful tapestry of sound woven by Broadbent and Harvie S — she understatedly sings "there are so many beautiful musicians who have passed my way, some of them are still around, others have gone away, the songs I sing are the songs I've learned from other jazz musicians, keeping this music alive is all I've ever really wanted to do."

Words cannot describe the impact NEA Jazz Master Sheila Jordan has had on generations of musicians who have been influenced by her singing, sense of time and commitment to keeping the living history of bebop vibrant. A consummate teacher who seems to fall in love with all her students (and visa versa), Jordan is the "keeper of the bebop flame" and an authority on the Great American Songbook. She proudly transmits that wisdom to her students be they beginners or professionals.

For her Saturday concert at the VJC, Jordan has chosen to revisit the trio found on "Better than Anything."

Alan Broadbent is one of Jordan's favorite pianists. He is a sensitive accompanist and brilliant arranger. Together they have worked on numerous projects including her highly regarded Heart Songs, a jazz trio plus string quartet album with arrangements by Broadbent that helped Jordan "realize a lifelong dream" of performing and recording with a string quartet. Broadbent won two Grammys for his arrangements for Natalie Cole and Shirley Horn and has arranged for Paul McCartney, Glenn Frey, Diana Krall and many others. He is highly regarded pianist who has recorded twenty-four albums as a leader and nine albums as a member/co-leader of Charlie Haden's Quartet West. Originally from New Zealand, Broadbent received recognition from Queen Elizabeth and was appointed a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit for his services to jazz and culture.

Tickets are $20+ general admission, $15 for students with I.D. (contact VJC about educational discounts); available at In the Moment in Brattleboro, or online at, by email at Tickets can also be reserved by calling the Vermont Jazz Center ticket line, 802-254-9088, ext. 1. Handicapped access is available by calling the VJC at 802 254 9088.


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