Vintage Bar And Grill in Abington, Pennsylvania is a good place. It’s a sports bar that serves up thoughtful food. There are plenty of televisions (seven in the main room), knick knacks all over the walls and a not bad selection of beers. And, duh, the place can get noisy, very noisy. So when my wife and I go there for dinner a couple of Fridays or Saturdays each year we are ready and willing to deal with mega decibels. Never had been there mid-week till a handful of days ago though, when on Tuesday we went not only for dinner but to hear some jazz. Most unlikely, Vintage is given over on Tuesday evenings to jazz vocalist Michelle Lordi and her musical partners.
The Philadelphia area, where I live, is home to lots of very good musicians in most musical genres, including jazz. The music biz being what it is, though, only a handful of musicians break through to decent-sized audiences. The rest, like Lordi, do what they can, sometimes maybe plying their craft at small unexpected spots like Vintage.
I’d known about Lordi’s Vintage gigs for a long time. I’d seen her name on a weekly email jazz-near-you schedule that I subscribe to, but I hadn’t given her much thought. Last week, though, the notion to see her bubbled up. Being musically in the dark about Michelle, I first checked her out on YouTube, and she sounded excellent. How was she in person? YouTube didn’t lie. She was great.
Lordi had with her four musicians she works with quite often. Two of them, tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna and electric guitarist Sonny Troy, are grizzled musical veterans, superb players with long and impressive resumes. Neither I suppose is on the road much anymore, if at all. It says a lot about Michelle that they choose to play with her. The other two are young guys, Sam Harris on upright bass and Mike Frank on electric piano. They did a fine job at Vintage.
Michelle and her band set up shop in a tight Vintage corner near the main entrance. A hi-def TV, on mute, showed the Phillies baseball game above them. Maybe 30 customers were in the room for the first set, at best half of them listening to the music. Five feet from Michelle and one foot from Sonny Troy was a table of six. As the music played, these folks blithely chitchatted about their vacations and the goings-on of various relatives, groundbreaking news all of it. I tip my hat to musicians who learn to become immune to this kind of stuff.
Michelle Lordi is from the understated school of jazz singing. I’d bet that she has taken cues from Doris Day and June Christy, calm singers from the 1940s and 50s. Diana Krall is maybe today’s biggest jazz name who isn’t interested in vocal gymnastics or in bursting a vein reaching for a high note. I like this style of singing a lot. You hear it consistently with Brazilian bossa nova singers.
During the one hour first set at Vintage, Lordi sang nine songs, standards from the American and Brazilian songbooks. She chose medium to slow tempos and sang efficiently and clearly in a firm and pretty voice. Lyrics came alive because she gave them room to breathe. Over Sonny Troy’s moody accompaniment, she slowed and elongated the words to Irving Berlin’s “They Say It’s Wonderful.” After a wise and moving Larry McKenna solo on Rodgers and Hart’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” Lordi sang unaffectedly, cleanly hitting the higher notes without strain or an excess of volume. The song resonated.
Michelle Lordi performs pretty regularly at other venues in the Philadelphia area, such as Chestnut Hill’s Paris Bistro And Jazz Café. And she has done some recording too. But overall she is not exactly a household name. Unless I missed something, the set I took in at Vintage would have gone over just swell at the high-profile Village Vanguard or Café Carlyle in Manhattan or, closer to home, at Philadelphia’s Annenberg Center For The Performing Arts. Beautiful singing, assured and sympathetic instrumental work. Maybe one day I’ll be able to say “I saw her when . . . “