Jazz Child is one of my favourite records by you. I mean, the very title says it all. And then there is the supple, vernal lyric-coloratura that soars without strain or harshness into the stratosphere. Discerningly partnered by Steve Kuhn, it seems you can spin a pure legato and always phrase musically, with rubato growing naturally from the curve of the line and the flux of the harmony. Your songs are arias unto themselves, Sheila, even if I say so myself. Melismas are rare, but when they come, dear Sheila, the high ‘tessitura’ of “Art Deco” for instance, or “My Ship” and – my favourite – “Bird Alone” in idioms that suggest chromatically over-ripe Don Cherry – and the tricky, vaulting leaps of the Abbey Lincoln piece are negotiated with such effortless grace. Sheila, you’re truly one of a kind. I never cease to wonder how you catch the mingled innocence and the perfumed languor of music – I hear this especially in the medley “Ballad for Miles/My Funny Valentine”. I mean, I’ve rarely heard anything so sweetly sung, so idiomatic and as darkly luxuriant as that medley. Your vocal ease, Sheila and your allure have always made you the artist to ‘watch’ for me.
I have to say, though, that my favourite records you have ever made continued to be I’ve Grown Accustomed to the Bass and Celebration, both records that you made with Cameron Brown. The sensuality and the aristocratic refinement of both are fiendishly brilliant. Your wit, your pizzazz, the absolutely rare versatility and panache… this is absolutely overflowing on both albums. I feel that you have a very special rapport with Cameron Brown. Evidence of your special artistry is everywhere apparent. Your phrasing is seamless, with none of the words-versus-music negotiations noticeable even in fine singers. Your vocal quality is not only pure but powerful, though in your case that power stays mostly in reserve until summoned by the music. Rather than pummeling the listener with your presence, you coax the listener into your realm with the subtlety of a whisper. Describing your vocal quality is strangely akin to food: ‘luscious’ comes to mind, as do ‘rich’ and ‘creamy’. Really I find it impossible to listen to these recordings without feeling hungry! And there were numerous more discs on which Sheila, you were featured that I had and listened to from time to time.
But there is one moment of listening to your music that will always stand out in my mind. You see, Sheila, once a few years ago, I was researching a feature on Jane Bunnett – you know her, of course… I was at her house and we were going through what she felt closest to on each of her records. And you know what Sheila, Jane put on The Water is Wide. We sat in the dusky sun-room of Jane’s house in Toronto and listened to that track… and we cried – I mean cried – uncontrollably. The profoundly beautiful version of the song had tapped into the deepest well of our emotions. We didn’t say a word to each other for a long time but just sat there – beer and Kleenex in hand. This was your Magnificat Sheila… and I believe in some ways will always define your music for me. It was then that I began to wonder why I had never met you… And what would happen if I actually met you? What would I say, would you let me hold your hand, perhaps even give you a chaste kiss as I breathlessly told you what your music had done for me?
In 2009 I worked with Bonnie Lester and The Art of Jazz. We were all working together to put the festival on track. I was excited that I would get to cover the festival for All About Jazz, while working also to make it happen. Egberto Gismonti and Hermeto Pascoal were going to be there, to be honored by the Art of Jazz. But when I heard that you were going to be there, I went weak in the knees. Was I really being given the opportunity of meeting you? Would it really happen? Wow!
And then we met… Do you remember? Sheila. I was the shy guy who approached you after your performance with Steve Kuhn, asking whether you would speak to me. I wanted to know everything, but you did not have too much time. You did invite me to your hotel room the next day and we talked. Oh, how we talked! About Roswell and Cameron and Harvie and God knows what else… I was drunk with your stories – stories about Bird and Dizzy and Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell… I gobbled up all of this like an insatiable animal. Later that day, I rode with you on a small bus, to The Distillery and attended your master class. You gave us all lead sheets, then you sang and you taught us all to sing; to let music warm the blood and beat with the rhythm of the heart. I was in heaven! You were every bit the human being that I had expected you to be. And more… Warm, witty, loving… a true original… I had a lesson in life that day and I remember every detail to this day. I don’t quite know why I have waited so long to tell you all of this. Perhaps Ellen Johnson’s book Jazz Child enabled me to unlock my own memories. And it is gratifying to know that I was once around you, but more than anything else, I know that I have the music – your music – to immerse myself in, so you see Sheila, we have been ‘friends’ for a lot longer than you or I ever knew. And we will always remain so. As long as there is you… and the music…