IN PERFORMANCE

The soaring vocal art of Sheila Jordan

A phone rings in the background. A siren screams in the distance. And the indomitable jazz singer Sheila Jordan works those random events into the lyric of the song, as if they had been planned all along.

The best jazz artists, of course, always create in the moment, but few vocalists these days venture so far into the unknown as Jordan, who at age 83 sounded characteristically fearless Friday night at the Green Mill, in Uptown.

Not that Jordan didn't face some challenges. Her pitch often was wobbly and sometimes incorrect, a distraction during various moments of her first set. But Jordan, a relentlessly inventive soul, turned nearly every misguided note into an opportunity, crafting strange and exotic phrases as she eased her way back into key.

More important, Jordan showed a devil-may-care spirit that one sooner associates with young artists unaware of the dangers involved. Combine Jordan's risk-everything manner with her long experience in life and song, and you have about as rewarding an experience as the art of jazz singing now affords.

At no point during Jordan's first set was she more moving than in the Gershwins' "Oh, Lady Be Good," something of a signature piece for her. Jazz devotees know that the song was a vehicle for Ella Fitzgerald, whose scat singing here – and elsewhere – showed a degree of up-tempo vocal virtuosity that never has been matched.

As a kid growing up in Detroit, Jordan became mesmerized with Fitzgerald's vocal feats but also frustrated by them, determining that she never would be able to approach such technical brilliance. But only a singer of Jordan's depth would tell this story in song, riffing on how Fitzgerald's vocal flights thrilled her, how they lured her into jazz, how she has come to learn that no one will ever equal Fitzgerald's triumphs.

Yet Jordan told her story not by speaking or half-singing but by plunging wholly into Gershwin's chord changes, concocting long and winding melody lines that somehow preserved the contour of the original but re-crafted it to suit her needs. Though Jordan had told the same tale last year at the Green Mill, the words and notes and mood were different this time: more slow and melancholy and autumnal.

Jordan often finds inspiration in music of Chicagoan Oscar Brown, Jr., and it's not difficult to understand why. The sorely missed singer-songwriter similarly brought the story of his life into his music, his enormous songbook still not fully appreciated by the world at large. But Jordan understands its value, and she once again acknowledged the great man, this time by radically re-conceiving his "Hum Drum Blues." Her suavely understated approach stood in sharp contrast to Brown's driving, declamatory style, underscoring the originality of her work.

So it went, Jordan turning familiar tunes inside out, with deft support from pianist Bradley Williams' trio. "How Deep is the Ocean" benefited greatly from the grit and gravel of her instrument. "All or Nothing at All," which helped launch Frank Sinatra's career, led to her to unfurl a lovely alternate melody. "Why Was I Born?" hardly could have been more blue.

Technical flaws notwithstanding, then, a tour de force of the art of jazz singing.

Sheila Jordan performs at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Green Mill Jazz Club, 4802 N. Broadway; $15; 773-878-5552 or greenmilljazz.com.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

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