Ted Panken: Stephanie Jordan Sings A Tribute To The Fabulous Lena Horne: Yesterday When I Was Young Liner Notes

The new CD honors the legendary Grammy Award winner whose music has been hailed as masterpieces.

“I love a story,” Stephanie Jordan says. “As a matter of fact, if a song doesn’t communicate a real, true story, it’s hard for me to relate to it.”

Which is one reason why this daughter of the Crescent City decided to dedicate her first album to Lena Horne (1917-2010), the iconic diva-actress who enchanted several generations of mid-century Americans, black and white, with a singular admixture of talent, beauty, integrity, and class, not to mention a unique ability to convey the essence of a lyric. Great lyrics permeate this beautifully rendered homage, and Jordan has the skill sets to do them justice—a voice that projects from a whisper to a scream, impeccable diction, dead-center pitch, fluid phrasing. Backed by a breathe-as-one 8-piece unit of top-shelf New Orleanians that sounds twice its size, and counterstated by a cohort of virtuoso soloists, she finds fresh, unfailingly swinging approaches to this well-traveled repertoire, melding into a personal argot elements garnered from such distinguished mentors as Shirley Horn, Abbey Lincoln, Nancy Wilson—and Lena Horne herself—while sounding like no one other than Stephanie Jordan. As she aptly puts it, “it’s a tribute, not a copy.”

The program offers Jordan a magnificent platform on which to showcase her exuberant spirit and abundant talent, but also contains an autobiographical component. The back story starts in the spring of 1983, when Horne visited New Orleans for the third and final time, bringing her one-woman show to the Saenger Theater for several weeks. The contractor was Jordan’s father, Edward “Kidd” Jordan—best known as an outcat improviser who navigates the interstellar spaces of late period John Coltrane, but also a distinguished educator and first-call session musician. He procured tickets for his family.

“I have witnessed hundreds of performances, by a lot of big-name singers and that one never left me,” says Jordan, who at 18 was confining her singing to the house, where her audience also included six siblings, among them world-class improvisers Marlon (trumpet) and Kent (flute), as well as Rachel, a strong classical violinist. These effusions were bedrocked by close listenings to her father’s blues records and her mother’s comprehensive collection of jazz and pop singers, spanning, among others, Nat Cole, Nancy Wilson, Arthur Prysock, and Gladys Knight.

“That night was the first time I’d ever witnessed a true jazz singer with everything—the fame, the fortune, the beauty, the style, the wit, the charm, the big band.” Jordan continues. “After she did some subtle things where she talked about her life, she sang ‘From This Moment On,’ which blew me away. The whole theater was on edge. Then, when she sang ‘Yesterday When I Was Young,’ everyone jumped up and erupted. I had never witnessed one person on stage send an audience into a frenzy like that. It was like, ‘Oh! This is jazz singing, for real.’”

Jordan began to sing for real in 1992. Then a resident of Silver Spring, Maryland (she’d graduated from Howard University as a communications major), she celebrated her birthday with a visit to a local club where Kent Jordan was performing with pianist Doug Carn. Earlier that day her brother asked, “jokingly,” if she’d sing a song. Jordan agreed, but, once on-site, got cold feet. “My sister was with me, and she said, ‘I’m tired of you just thinking you sound good. I dare you to go up there and do it.’ I asked Doug for ‘I Remember April.’ He figured out a key, the band kicked off, and I almost fainted. My eyes were shut tight, my knees were locked back, like a little girl, and I started singing. When I finished, the audience said, ‘Yeah! She’s good, we like her.’ The club-owner; Bobby Boyd told Doug, ‘Give her a gig.’”

Thirteen years later, not long after Hurricane Katrina had destroyed her New Orleans home, Jordan, now the mother of a 9-year-old son, found herself back in Maryland, “walking down the street, crying, trying to get my life together.” Musical thoughts rose up, specifically Lena Horne’s early ‘60s recording of “Once In A Lifetime.”

“It was the last CD I listened to before I evacuated,” she recalls. “I remember the lyrics—‘Just once in a lifetime a man knows his moment, one wonderful moment when fate takes his hand’—and then it ends, ‘All I know is, once in my lifetime, I’m gonna do great things.’

“I couldn’t stop thinking about Lena. I remembered her singing to Dorothy in The Wiz, ‘Believe that you can go home; believe you can float on air.’ I’d cry, and sing that song to myself. Then I started remembering ‘Yesterday When I Was Young.’ That’s when I realized I needed to examine her music. In my moment of crisis and total pain, what came to my mind was, ‘believe that you can go home,’ and then ‘Yesterday when I was young, the taste of life was sweet as rain upon my tongue.’ I saw myself at 18, when I first saw Lena on the stage—life was beautiful. Now here I am in this nightmare, this Katrina hell. All I can think about is Lena Horne and that music.”

After resettling in New Orleans in 2008, Jordan took the next step, collaborating with her musical director, pianist Mike Esneault (a former student of her uncle, the recently deceased master clarinetist Alvin Batiste), on tunes and treatments for a Lena Horne tribute that premiered at the 2009 edition of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

The Hurricane Katrina subtext—Jordan’s grieving and recovery—is palpable in the opening medley, which she describes as “an outgrowth of believing I could go home.” On this quasi-overture, she flows from a clarion “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” (Horne didn’t record it), into Duke Ellington’s “I’m Beginning To See The Light” (Horne recorded it on the 1957 LP Live at The Waldorf Astoria) on which she dialogues with brother Marlon Jordan’s fiery obbligatos and pithy solo declamation, and into an ascendent “Come Fly With Me” (Horne didn’t record it).

The album’s title track, a Charles Aznavour gem that Horne documented on the 1969 LP Lena and Gabor. Jordan’s sodium pentothal treatment—the truth WILL be told—is evocative of the magical phrasing of Shirley Horn, a close friend of Jordan from her D.C. days.

“Shirley told me to hold back, but also know when to go full throttle—restrain your power so you can create tension with the audience and with the band,” Jordan told me a few years ago, foreshadowing her bravura treatment of this show-stopper. “It’s always a beautiful tension, a quiet control that you have to understand at all times. I love Abbey Lincoln—and Lena, too—because of the drama and power of their voice, the ability to deliver a song and draw the audience in.”

Jordan channels her inner Dinah Washington on a pull-no-punches reading of “The Lady Is A Tramp” (Horne sang it to a Marty Paich arrangement on Lena Takes Requests, from 1961) that is notable for the bite of her attack and the absolute assurance of her time.

She puts a samba-second line beat on “Love,” which appears on Horne’s The Lady and Her Music Live On Broadway, from 1981, and treats Michel Legrand’s ebullient “Watch What Happens,” a signature tune of Horne’s later career, as an up-tempo shuffle blues, building and building, giving way to a wild solo by her father, before reentering with in-tune scream. “That tune captures a lot about our family,” she says. “We love the blues; it’s at the heart of everything that we do, but we also have this edginess because each of us is very definite about who we are musically. My father taught us to be that way. Have your own identity, whatever you do.”

Jordan follows her father’s dictum throughout the remainder of the program, comprising all American Songbook classics—“Just One Of Those Things,” “Stormy Weather,” “Can’t Help Lovin’ That Man Of Mine,” “From This Moment On.”

Her only regret is that Horne isn’t around to hear this heartfelt offering. “I was two years into doing tributes to her, when she died,” she says. “It was devastating to me.

“I love intimate, quiet duos and trios, but I love the excitement and drama of Lena Horne with a lot of horns on stage. It’s a beautiful experience to witness it, and to do it is just beyond belief. Through this Lena Horne journey, I figured out that I love music and musicians more than I ever thought I could. It transformed me, and I’m hoping that my fans will be transformed by this experience.”

Ted Panken

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