Sheila Jordan sang down the curtain on the Eighth Step season on Friday at Proctors GE Theatre with a light touch but deeply assured command of her instrument, songs and band — a quietly swinging, crisp and unobtrusive trio.
Now 83, Jordan still has the experience and skill to weave together swing, bebop, ballads and gentle comedy.
She sang intros of her players — pianist Ray Gallon, bassist Cameron Brown and drummer Billy Drummond (and praise within songs whenever anybody particularly nailed it) — forming her opening number “Humdrum Blues” from this improvised, easy song-chat.
She conjured “How Deep is the Ocean” the same sly way, skewing the melody, skatting the chorus and leaning into the piano’s curve as Gallon soloed and singing her accolades to Drummond for his solo. His solo in Abbey Lincoln’s “Bird Alone,” mostly on cymbals, was even better, but the graceful way Jordan swung her voice over its Latin groove made the song hers.
“Falling in Love with Love” was all jovial self-deprecation, and she stretched “Lady Be Good” into a blues, complete with a name-check on “Schenectady” and a sung recollection of trying to learn it from Ella’s 78.
Billie Holiday’s “Good Morning Heartache” drenched the smallish but happy audience in sadness that hurt so good it seemed deep enough to immerse the world. She took it up again with Bird’s “Confirmation,” sparring playfully with Brown’s bass before a straight-bop recap.
Pairing fatalistic ballads by Steve Kuhn and Gordon Jenkins closed the first set in a mood of wistful longing.
After reading a Martin Luther King essay on jazz, she started the second set with “All or Nothing At All,” but went off script fast — responding to a request shouted out for “The Touch of Your Lips” and staying flirty to sing her phone number for another fan.
Musically her second set peaked with Jimmy Webb’s sumptuous “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” — sweet, slow and sad — but emotionally, a cameo by Jody Shane in “The Very Thought of You” was tops — friendly and fun.
Jordan sang Sonny Rollins’ “Ladies Be Careful” for its comedy without slighting the music, exhorting Drummond to solo by chanting his name repeatedly; then she sang her life story in “Sheila’s Blues.” Mourning a departed friend, and celebrating life, she encored with the tender “The Crossing.”
Jordan sometimes slid to a note rather than nailing it immediately, and she often tinkered with the chords, transposing and nudging familiar songs into new sonorities. However, despite her frequently intense, though generally soft-spoken audacious melodic mutations, Jordan isn’t a transformative artist like her idols Ella, Billie, Sarah or Abbey. Yet she remains, at 83, a very satisfying one — musically and emotionally — with a marvelous expressiveness, effortless swing and unforced and very genuine emotional intensity.