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JAZZ REVIEW : Unsung Heroine Has Vocal Magic

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If singer Mel Torme is the “Velvet Fog,” Sheila Jordan must be his female counterpart.

Jordan’s voice came across as mellow as coffee with a hint of liqueur during her opening set Wednesday night at Elario’s, where she performs through Sunday.

Backed by locals Jim Plank on drums and Bob Magnusson on bass, plus Oregonian (and former San Diegan) Randy Porter on piano, Jordan proved that she is one of the great jazz vocalists.

With the release of her fine new album “Lost and Found,” her first in five years, Jordan’s career is ascending. Recognition is long overdue for this singer, who released her first album, “Portrait of Sheila,” on Blue Note in 1963.

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Jordan, who looks to the late great jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker for inspiration, uses her voice with all the precision and imagination that Bird used on sax. Her hushed, breathy vocals on ballads and the way she slides effortlessly through complicated strings of notes also calls the saxophonist to mind. And, like Parker, she is unafraid of attempting risky improvisations that thrill you when they succeed, which is often.

Jordan has always been fond of duos with bass players. Clearly, she was impressed with the musicians--she had only met them that afternoon during a brief rehearsal--and trusted Magnusson enough to dance a pas de deux in “Dat Dere.” Their rendition of this sentimental piece about a young child’s innocent questioning was especially sweet, as Jordan played her scatting voice off Magnusson’s facile, sensitive accompaniment.

As the evening progressed, Jordan often interjected anecdotes, personal asides and witty, improvised lyrics, winning her audience over by frankly expressing her thoughts and feelings.

During the ballad “If I Had You,” she turned to Plank and sang, “It’s been so long since I saw men on the bandstand dressed in white shirts and ties.”

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She also made reference to actor-director Clint Eastwood’s movie “Bird” and offered her own understated review on the film about Parker: “I won’t comment.” (Many jazz purists thought the movie dwelt too much on Parker’s personal problems and not enough on his music.)

She also confessed that, “Nothing gives me more pleasure than singing depressing ballads” because, when she’s done, she explained, she doesn’t feel depressed anymore.

Jordan’s set included a mix of mostly romantic music by great composers, such as Michel Legrand’s “You Must Believe in Spring” and Cole Porter’s “I Concentrate on You.”

What’s so charming about the petite singer, who wore a gown that matched her short black hair, is her unpretentiousness and obvious commitment to jazz, despite the fact that, at 61, she’s only made a living from her music for three years.

About the only disappointment was that Jordan deferred too often to her band mates, giving generous solo space, even letting them take two numbers without her mid-set. Granted, they are all top players with something to say, but all you really wanted was to be surrounded again by Jordan’s soft, velvet fog.

Sheila Jordan plays at 9, 10:30 and midnight today, and at 8:30 and 10:30 Sunday night. Admission is $5.


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