Sheila Jordan, at Jazz Bistro. Photo by the author.Now’s the time to listen up to Sheila Jordan. 88-years-young and singing better than ever, she is at a creative peak, touring the world as jazz singer, educator and “jazz ambassador.” Much is amazing about this beautiful songbird who weaves her soul’s magic on all sorts of stages, changing lives one gig at a time. She does this all herself and always has, and as the song goes, she did it her way. “I’ve never had an agent or a manager,” she once told me. “I’m not a diva, if you know what I mean. I just want to sing, teach, and spread the message of this music. Most of the gigs I get, I get from musicians.”

On June 26 and 27, 2017, the TD Toronto Jazz Festival presented Sheila Jordan at one of the city’s premier jazz venues, Jazz Bistro. Pianist Adrean Farrugia, bassist Neil Swainson and trumpeter Brad Goode all provided inspiring accompaniment for the singer. There were two performances nightly, at 7pm and 10pm, and I was fortunate enough to be in attendance for all four of them. (Thanks to Brian Chahley, the last set of the four can be viewed here: https://youtu.be/jecJbHKflhk.)

Before I get to the review of these appearances, just in case some of you reading this will say, “Sheila who?” I will give you a little introduction; for those curious about this woman’s extraordinary life, music and legacy, I highly recommend Ellen Johnson’s biography “Jazz Child: A Portrait of Sheila Jordan”.

Sheila Jeanette Dawson was born on November 18, 1928 in Detroit to unwed teenagers. As a toddler she was raised by her grandparents, at one time 10 people sharing a room, in Summerhill, a poverty-stricken coal-mining town in rural Pennsylvania. It was there that she discovered her gift of expressing her woe through songs, her Cherokee bloodline seeping with chant into the likes of You Are My Sunshine, Downtown Strutter’s Ball, Shine on Harvest Moon and When I Grow Too Old to Dream in the beer gardens for an inebriated crowd of coal miners. She returned to Detroit at 14, but her alcoholic mother’s abusive husband drove the precocious child to early independence.

Then it happened – the moment that changed her life forever – sparked by a nickel in a jukebox. The record was Charlie Parker and His Re-Boppers and it was a huge eureka moment for her. The bold risks and expressive innovations of modern jazz, especially those by its magical main man, Charlie “Bird” Parker, struck a (bebop) chord deep within the adolescent, and since dedicating her life to jazz music 70 years ago, she has never looked back. Following Charlie Parker around from club to club, she and her friends inspired the song Chasing the Bird and Parker lauded her “million dollar ears.” They were close friends until his death in 1955.

Bird lives on in Jordan’s music to this day, his adventurous spirit felt in every note. On Tribute, her lyrics in dedication to Parker culminate in a sentiment her own fans can relate to: “…somehow I find it rather strange knowing that there are those of us who really love him, while so many aren’t even aware of his name…” A memorable performance of this tune can be found here, in duo with bassist Harvie S – “bass and voice” being a collaborative form Sheila herself originated after experimenting with Charles Mingus in the early 1950s.

Sheila’s life story is actually best summed up herself, in the tune Sheila’s Blues which she recorded on one of her finest albums,The Crossing in 1984. It is an incredibly personal artistic statement, encapsulating not only her dazzling musicality, but also the honesty which makes it matter. There are a handful of brilliant versions of this song on YouTube, including this one posted last week, filmed in 1988 in Graz, Austria where Sheila was teaching a workshop, and this one from 2012 in front of an appreciative hometown crowd in Detroit.

Fast-forward to June 27, 11:21pm, TD Toronto Jazz Festival, Jazz Bistro, Toronto, Canada. Sheila Jordan and the Adrean Farrugia trio just finished performing her cathartic composition about recovering from alcohol and drug abuse, The Crossing, and there is not a dry eye in the house. Advertised by the festival as “one of the finest singers in jazz since Billie Holiday,” Jordan’s astonishing depth as a ballad singer was evidenced by songs she sent out to musicians who had touched her life. The second night in particular was poignant, in huge part by jazz pianist Geri Allen's passing. The 60-year-old jazz luminary was well-known for her spirited, deeply blues-oriented style of playing and composing. Jordan, a close friend of the artist, dedicated The Thrill is Gone to her, managing to avoid her own tears while inspiring a plethora in the audience.

Jordan's rendition of Abbey Lincoln’s melancholy Bird Alone was imbued with a bossa nova beat that only enhanced its mood. Kenny Dorham’s still-timely Fairweather was dedicated to its composer, an underrated trumpet player she urged the audience to check out. A splendid composition by Alan Broadbent and Dave Frishberg encouraged each audience member to follow their Heart’s Desire: “I quit my day job at 58 and here I am today. It’s never too late!”

Maybe what makes Jordan’s ballads so arresting is the humour that surrounds them. Hardly trying to hide her age, she channels her inner child, improvising her own lyrics on the spot with consistently hysterical results. On a slowed-down tribute to Ella, titled Lady Be Good, she purposely didn’t scat, but told the story of the first time she heard Fitzgerald, on a 78 she purchased with a quarter earned by scrubbing a woman’s steps.

A genuine jazz giant in a tiny frame, it is Jordan’s lightness of being, her casual ability to connect with strangers, that makes her not merely refreshing, but wondrous. Some 70 years after she first heard Bird, this sage storyteller is as fearless as she is precious; may she long continue to sing, swing and inspire.

Singer (with) Heart, Educator In-The-Moment! Loving Audiences
Jazzy Open Range, Dreamlike Agility; Now’s the time to listen up to Sheila Jordan.

Sheila Jordan performed a total of four sets on June 26 and 27 at Toronto’s Jazz Bistro, as part of the 2017 TD Toronto Jazz Festival.

Ori Dagan is a Toronto-based jazz musician, writer and educator who can be reached at oridagan.com.

 

 

 The cast of Uncle Vanya. Photo credit: Valeriy Myasnika.As I made my way through the lobby of the John Bassett Theatre on Saturday, June 24 to find my seat, I was surrounded by Russian speakers excitedly in conversation, waiting for the curtain to go up on the Vakhtangov State Academic Theatre production of Russia’s Uncle Vanya (as part of the 2017 Luminato festival). What a perfect unexpected pre-show start to an evening of classic Russian theatre that I was to review as part of my work as The WholeNote’s music theatre columnist

“Wait a second,” you say, “Uncle Vanya? But that's Chekhov, right? Slightly turgid, sad, straight plays about people who want to go to Moscow or not sell their Cherry Orchard...right?” “Well, yes,” I reply, “and no.” This company is famous for using the theatrical methods of Meyerhold – large-scale symbolism, mime and music – in their productions, so it does qualify as “music theatre” to some extent. I was interested to see how important music would be to telling the story, as well as what would be different in the Vakhtangov company’s approach, and how it would affect my response.

It took a while to acclimatize to the style and its conventions, which at first were almost alienating, but by halfway to the intermission I was won over and the production began to take hold. From the beginning, the music was a constant. Almost no scene was un-scored or unaccompanied by sound – sometimes in accord with the surface emotion of a scene, but more often expressing what lay beneath – and only rarely was there no music or sound at all, and only for specific effect.

While the text of the play (and the program stated, no word of Chekhov’s writing had been omitted) was spoken in what one would think of as a natural, realistic way, the physical expression of emotion, feelings and relationships was not. At first it seemed strangely presentational and arbitrary, but later it became refreshingly evocative of what the characters were feeling – often the opposite of what they were saying. From Elena throwing herself onto the floor in the middle of the stage or walking across the stage with a silver hula hoop (which naturally folded into the staging), to Vanya’s caressing of Elena’s feet and calves (the only part of her visible from behind a screen), to characters feeling no need to look at each other as they spoke, to the grand mimetic entrances and exits for the professor and his entourage, the physicality of this production was used to powerful, and often disconcerting, effect.

From my reading about Meyerhold I had expected the stylization to have more influence over the speaking of the text, so that was the biggest surprise, and for me a great part of the success of this production. Somehow in this particular combination of words, movement and music, the inner needs and lives of the characters were set free and allowed us to love them and laugh at them at the same time. World theatre criticism and production has finally moved on to a more general acceptance of the fact that Chekhov’s plays are actually meant to be funny (alongside the personal and societal sorrows they depict) but this production was a revelation, the comedy and tragedy so strongly interlaced and exposed to us in the audience that we came to really care about these odd, desperate trapped people, in all their absurdity and flawed humanity.

Dancers Ching Ying Chien and Christine Joy Ritter in Until the Lions. Photo credit: Jean Louis Fernandez.Until the Lions: Earlier in the festival on June 18, I had the chance to see Akram Khan’s dance production Until the Lions, and in this the music was even more integral. Long before the show itself began there was an almost subliminally present, ominous wind-like soundscape playing through the theatre’s speakers, interlaced with moving light and shadow on the stage. As the piece itself began this was layered with live music performed by a team of musicians using their voices, drums, a guitar and various other instruments to create an invigoratingly live soundscape score for the dancers. There was a magical quality to the setting: a stage looking like the rippled stump of a giant tree with springy bamboo shoots growing randomly on its uneven surface and around the stage, in front of an audience seated on all four sides, was a path for the musicians, and occasionally for the dancers, to travel. Taken from the “Story of Amba,” a princess in the Sanskrit epic The Mahabharata, Until the Lions explores the unseen side of her story in an immensely fierce and passionate hour of choreography for three dancers (Akram Khan, Ching-Ying Chien and Joy Alpuerto RItter.

Pss Pss. Photo credit: Pipo Gialluisi.Pss Pss: On the same day as Until the Lions I went earlier to see Pss Pss, a clown performance by the Italian Compagnia Baccalà at Luminato’s “Famous Spiegeltent,” not expecting it to connect at all with the later show and yet, much to my delight, it really did.  Brilliant clown duo Camilla Pessi and Simone Fassari, looking like white face versions of Edward Everett Horton and a young Christina Ricci, began almost in silence, finding hilarity in the shared desire to eat an apple with barely a sound other than the whispered “pss pss” to catch one another’s attention. Then, the music erupted into the space – wonderfully circus-y dramatic music, selections from Ekberg, Torgue, Houppin and Lindvall – and these two goofy figures we were starting to love morphed into brilliant, slightly clumsy (but not really) acrobats throwing each other around. Pessi balanced on Fassari’s shoulders, head, even a single hand, the two bodies supporting each other then falling and tumbling and intertwining in a choreography that would find a serious counterpart in the passionate dance duets of Until the Lions later that day. Such synchronicity, and fascinating to see the relationship between two people depicted in such funny and then such searing detail.

All in all, an impressive array of shows at this year’s Luminato festival – and a reminder of how successful “music theatre” can be found in even the most unexpected of places.

The Luminato festival ran from June 14 to 25, in various locations throughout Toronto. For more information, visit www.luminatofestival.com.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

 

The Seven Deadly Sins at the TSO. Photo credit: Jag Gundu.What a treat to hear Wallis Giunta sing Anna I and to watch Jennifer Nichols dance Anna II, to experience them playing two exquisite halves of a whole. Their plight was the centrepiece of last night’s concert at the TSO, in a semi-staged version of Brecht/Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins that documents the seven-year, seven-city trek that two ‘sisters’ undertake to make enough money to build the “little house in Louisiana” that is everything their family wants.

The Seven Deadly Sins was originally envisioned as a “ballet chantée” – a “sung ballet” with a full ballet company as well as singers and a leading dancer, telling the story of two sisters (or are they?) encountering the seven deadly sins in seven American cities as they strive to raise money for their family. Last night’s semi-staged version, directed by Joel Ivany and choreographed by his frequent collaborator Jennifer Nichols, did a very clever job of having the four male singers take on the roles usually performed by dancers as well as their own characters of the “family” (father, mother and two brothers). As Nichols had earlier told me (and as she explains in the program notes), her approach to the choreography was “to find a way to express that the family of Anna does not simply sit outside of her in judgment but are an extension of her own self-examination, her hopes and fears.” This, added to the usual interchangeability of Anna I and II in spite of the divided sides of her personality, led to a very interesting new take on the piece. The four male singers (Isaiah Bell, Owen McCausland, Stephen Hegedus and Geoffrey Sirett) proved admirable actors and performers of the choreography and staging – Geoffrey Sirett standing out in a moving pas de deux with Nichols in the “Lust” chapter.

Giunta and Nichols also blended seamlessly – Giunta moving like a dancer as well as acting powerfully, and Nichols also acting wonderfully while dancing and speaking. Looking almost identical but subtly differentiating themselves more and more throughout the piece, practical Anna I (Giunta) became more and more hardened to the “practical necessities” of the world while the ”she is an artist” Anna II (Nichols) grew more vulnerable and beaten up from fighting impossible fights. The pair’s repeated refrain (ironic for the audience) of “Nicht wahr, Anna?” (Right, Anna?) and “Ja, Anna” (Yes, Anna) still echoes in my memory, with poor Anna II more and more discouraged even while continuing to agree with her stronger and more soulless half.

The original production in Paris in 1933 was apparently received with some puzzlement, and while The Seven Deadly Sins is considered a modern classic and true to the political values seen in other Brecht/Weill collaborations, watching it tonight I was not surprised that it would have been received that way. The irony in the libretto is sometimes too subtle, sometimes too over the top,  and the sins themselves not easy to depict onstage – perhaps why this work is much more often seen in concert form rather than being fully staged. In this case, though, the semi-staged, choreographed production last night was much more satisfying than a straightforward concert singing of the material would have been.

It was also fascinating to see in this third collaboration of director and choreographer such a seamlessly smooth blending of approach and staging. Perhaps it was my high expectation of these friends and their abilities that made me want even more from the performance – perhaps a more pointed political context given the state of the world today, or another way to give the production more of a contemporary urgency, but that may be just me. Already their work together is reaching new heights and depths, and with the new video element to bookend each chapter of the story (enigmatic, Bergman-esque black-and-white video images created by Jennifer Nichols with Christopher Monetti), they are already exploring new territory. I look forward to seeing their next collaboration, as well as which other semi-staged productions the TSO will make part of future seasons.

Brecht/Weill’s The Seven Deadly Sins was presented by the Toronto Symphony Orchestra at Roy Thomson Hall on Wednesday, June 14, alongside works by Balfour, Barber and Bartók. A second performance takes place on Thursday, June 15.

Toronto-based “lifelong theatre person” Jennifer (Jenny) Parr works as a director, fight director, stage manager and coach, and is equally crazy about movies and musicals.

John Cage in 1981, “Music is an act of aspiration,” claimed historical novelist Rose Tremain (Music and Silence, The Gustav Sonata) in her Writers & Company (June 4, 2017) CBC radio interview. And aspiration was also at the top of American iconoclast composer John Cage’s list of research topics when he set to work on his CBC commission for a work, in Cage’s words, to “observe the bicentennial of the United States of America.”

The composer tells us in his pre-recorded, self-narrated Preface to Lecture on the Weather (1975), played back before each performance, that the  “first thing I thought of doing in relation to this work was to find an anthology of American aspirational thought and subject it to chance operations.” His motive was transformational: “I thought the resultant complex would help to change our present intellectual climate.” Unfortunately, no such anthology existed, he tells us.

This compellingly rich yet provocative Cage work received a rare and thought-provoking concert performance on May 28, by the Music in the Barns Chamber Ensemble at the Great Hall in Toronto.

It was the keystone work of a concert which included works by American minimalist Philip Glass (Tissue # 1, 2, 7, 2002) and Canadian postmodernist Michael Oesterle (Daydream Mechanics for string quartet, 2001). The concert was the centrepiece of the evening, which also included, in other Great Hall rooms, Becoming Sensor, a multi-sensory installation by Natasha Myers, Ayelen Liberona, Allison Cameron, Rosina Kazi and Nicholas Murray; and The Great Arc by the New York City duo Dana Lyn & Kyle Sanna. All of these Music in the Barns events were created for the Canadian Association for Theatre Research conference titled Performing the Anthropocene: Setting the Stage for the End of the World, held in Toronto the last week in May.

One of Lecture on the Weather’s most significant – and perhaps challenging – features is the work’s essentially multimedia and highly collaborative nature. It is a result of the collaborative processes set up by the composer to include his own text, texts by Henry David Thoreau (from which Cage selected relevant sections, filtered through I Ching procedures), recordings of environmental sounds produced by American composer Maryanne Amacher, plus a film by Chilean visual artist Luis Frangella using Thoreau’s drawings. As for live performers, the score calls for 12 expatriate “vocalists and/or players” with independent sound systems, each “given an equalization distinguishing it from the others” – emphasizing Cage’s socio-political agenda in the piece.

As far as I could tell, those stipulations were adhered to in Music in the Barns’ recent performance. The Music in the Barns performance also included composer Jim Montgomery, who also served as performer at the work’s premiere in 1976 – a nice touch of continuity.

On one level, Lecture on the Weather is an homage to Henry David Thoreau’s philosophy, words and drawings. A New England transcendentalist writer and naturalist, much of the nature sounds reflected in Thoreau’s work are represented in Cage’s piece. On the other hand, the methodology of Lecture on the Weather conforms to well-established Cagean practices of that period, such as employing I Ching divination to determine compositional choices, as well as a tip of the hat to his own back catalogue in the form of his most iconic work 4’33”: the durational range each speaker-vocalist is given is determined by multiples of 4’33”.

The work also serves as a radical personal political statement, an incisive critique of his home country’s place in the world. Cage concludes the first section of his Preface by linking the corruption of the laws of the land when it “concentrates its energy on protecting the rich from the poor” to leadership lacking in “not only aspiration but intelligence (as in the work of Buckminster Fuller) and conscience (as in the thought of Thoreau).”

Lecture on the Weather has long been recognized as the most overtly political of Cage’s oeuvre. It points fingers, raises questions. It is part polemical lecture, part experimental film, theatrical performance, part environmental sound poem. It is problematic (and problematizing) to the bone. And – as the compelling Music in the Barns performance on May 28 demonstrates – that is why it’s still as relevant today as the day it was first performed.

Lecture on the Weather was presented by Music in the Barns on Sunday, May 28 at the Great Hall in Toronto, as part of a series of works presented for the conference Performing the Anthropocene: Setting the Stage for the End of the World. For those curious about the deep backstory of this work’s commission, I recommend David Jaeger’s first-person account in his October 26, 2016 WholeNote article.

Andrew Timar is a Toronto musician and music writer. He can be contacted at worldmusic@thewholenote.com.

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