Too Much Coffee Man (Blue Note)
Bob Dorough w/Dave Frishberg
Who’s on First (Blue Note)
From the Heart (32 Jazz)
Despite being greatly admired by musicians and critics, vocalists Bob Dorough and Sheila Jordan have languished in obscurity most of their careers. Maybe that’s because neither qualifies as a prototypical jazz singer. Dorough is a master at crafting oddball lyrics and doing wild interpretations of bop anthems, while Jordan ranks among jazz’s most expressive singers; her crisp articulation and manipulation of pitch, tempo, and delivery reflect the influence of her idol Billie Holiday.
Neither records often, which makes any new or reissued release a major event. But Dorough is suddenly becoming somewhat of a media sensation as he approaches his 77th birthday. His second Blue Note CD, Too Much Coffee Man, which came out this spring, was only the sixth release in his recording career, which dates back to 1956. But audience and critical reaction to Coffee Man was so great, Blue Note is issuing another date from Dorough this month. Who’s on First pairs the inimitable musician with longtime comrade and musical soul mate Dave Frishberg. In addition, Dorough’s ’56 debut release Devil May Care (Bethlehem/Avenue Jazz) was recently reissued as part of the latest Bethlehem archives project. Unfortunately, there’s been no equivalent rush to crank out Sheila Jordan material, though her recent reissue From the Heart compiles selections from three superb, long-out-of-print LPs that she recorded for Muse from 1982-1993.
Dorough was born in Cherry Hill, Ark., and started playing professionally as a pianist in the ’40s, then began singing in the early ’50s. One of his first jobs was backing the great boxer Sugar Ray Robinson during a career change from bashing heads to obliterating lyrics. Dorough scored his first critical success with Devil May Care, but the LP proved a mixed blessing. Though it won him widespread recognition, the LP also stamped him as a stylistic maverick. Some traditionalists considered him a limited performer more interested in comedy and satire than in jazz vocals.
Dorough released roughly one LP per decade during the ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s; all featured songs with witty lines plus distinctive covers and rippling piano solos. However, they were also light-years removed from the swinging ballads and lush romantic pieces that normally comprised vocal jazz albums. In the early ’70s, Dorough turned to instructional material, gaining his greatest fame writing and directing the “Schoolhouse Rock” series of Saturday-morning educational programs on TV. Still, his first love remained adapting and performing in jazz-influenced settings, and he made a stirring comeback in 1997. At 73, Dorough stunned everyone with Right on My Way Home, an amazing montage combining wry observations, prickly piano accompaniment, and edgy remakes. The response convinced Blue Note to cut a follow-up, although in typical fashion, it took the singer three years to release Too Much Coffee Man.
Throughout her career, Sheila Jordan has simply refused to do projects unless she had creative control. This stand resulted in her spending most of the ’60s and ’70s working day jobs outside the musical arena. When she began her career in the ’50s, after moving from her hometown of Detroit to New York City, Jordan received instant acclaim for her nightclub appearances. She studied with Lennie Tristano and worked alongside then-husband pianist Duke Jordan from 1952-1962. She became one of the first vocalists ever signed by Blue Note and made a superb debut LP for the label in 1962, but it would be another decade before she’d make another album. Jordan came closest to being a steady recording artist during the ’80s, but most of that work was issued on poorly distributed European LPs. She hasn’t made a new domestic release since 1993.
All three of these new or recent albums accent the fact that Dorough and Jordan are special talents, with few contemporary followers. Dorough still enjoys incorporating bizarre comments and lyrics into his songs. The first cut on Too Much Coffee Man, “The Coffee Song (They’ve Got a Lot of Coffee in Brazil),” is both a wild parody and a spirited example of marvelously executed scatting and interpretative singing. It’s buttressed by surging alto sax lines from Phil Woods and expert interaction between bassist Ray Drummond and drummer Billy Hart. That’s always been a Dorough trademarkno matter how silly the words might seem, the music retains its integrity.
Dorough can be poignant, as on “There’s Never Been a Day” or the anti-hatred tract “Late in the Century,” or he can be outrageous, as on “Marilyn, Queen of Lies” and “Oklahoma Toad,” a composition by the equally zany Frishberg. Unfortunately, his madcap antics have sometimes blinded observers to his gifts as an improviser and vocalist. He’ll never be an overpowering ballad singer, nor will he surprise listeners with his range. However, his ability to move from wild humor to insightful statements while spicing things with bluesy keyboard phrasing and keen melodies proves jazz singing isn’t always about amazing technique. Too Much Coffee Man will undoubtedly be too weird for some fans, but those with a good sense of humor will find it delightful.
Dorough and Frishberg, who initially met in New York nearly 40 years ago, make amazing music both in tandem and solo on Who’s on First. Frishberg, 67, also began his career as a solid bop pianist with a penchant for comedic discourse and unconventional lyrics. But after achieving some success in combos led by Kai Winding, Al Cohn, and Zoot Sims, among others, he abandoned bop and cool material, forging an identity in the ’70s for blending hipster quips and hot piano. He remains mostly a critical darling, with greater popularity among cabaret audiences than among the jazz public.
Who’s on First culls performances from the duo’s weeklong engagement last November at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles. Frishberg’s voice is deeper than Dorough’s, but their attitudes, vocal approach, and keyboard techniques are extremely close. They constantly segue in and out of “jive” character, alternating between light or blazing keyboard lines and offering retorts, quips, and comments on everything from Frank Sinatra’s pianist to life on the road. The boisterous rhythms and spry phrases underneath their vocal duets on “Saturday Dance” and “Conjunction Junction” should shatter any notions that they lack instrumental chops. And although Who’s on First pays homage to jive vocals, scat, and vocalese, neither Dorough nor Frishberg ever sounds dated.
Jordan is no humorist, but she’s just as unusual a vocalist. Although the compositions on From the Heart are shopworn, she never takes casual or predictable approaches. Her treatments of “The Very Thought of You” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing” depart radically from renditions normally offered by most jazz singers. She roams in the middle and lower registers on “The Very Thought of You,” her voice dipping and curling around lyrics rather than fully emphasizing key words or embellishing phrases.
Jordan coproduced several songs and helped select the supporting musicians. Longtime bass comrade Harvie Swartz appears on every selection. His thick, unobtrusive lines perfectly fit Jordan’s voice; he sometimes caresses her scatting refrains or counters them, particularly during their duet version of “Old Time Feeling.” The songs that most resemble standard jazz repertory feature Jordan backed by a trio; pianist Kenny Barron’s restrained yet dazzling work on “I Concentrate on You” and “Lost in the Stars” beautifully underscores Jordan’s shimmering vocals.
Perhaps the most noteworthy numbers are four selections featuring Jordan assisted by a string section. The ’93 release Heart Strings, from which these songs are culled, fulfilled her lifelong dream of recording orchestrated pieces. She’s evocative and piercing throughout “Look Out for the Silver Lining,” as if the song’s message of perseverance stands as an affirmation of her own life. “Comes Love” and “Haunted Heart” are also superbly sung, although her version of the latter tune doesn’t equal the great version by Charlie Haden’s Quartet West two years ago. Still, Jordan’s demure stylings and vocals are nicely framed by Alan Broadbent’s arrangements.
None of these CDs will win Bob Dorough and Sheila Jordan widespread fame and recognition. But hopefully, their existence not only affords these singers new exposure, but will spark interest in more dates for them in the future.
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