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Michelle Lordi: Dream A Little Dream”
by Andrew Gilbert
Some jazz recordings catch lightning in a bottle, documenting the frisson sparked by a rare encounter. Other projects arise from working ensembles, capturing a band’s embracing camaraderie forged over years of shared music making. Vocalist Michelle Lordi has thrived in both settings. Her critically hailed 2015 album Drive centered on her collaboration with fellow Philadelphian Orrin Evans, the brilliant pianist who produced the project and accompanied her on a luscious, ballad-laden program. Dream a Little Dream is a very different kind of album, a briskly swinging set of standards featuring some of Philly’s most revered jazz veterans, particularly tenor saxophonist Larry McKenna and guitarist Sonny Troy.
Singing with poise and purpose, Lordi draws creative sustenance from these well-traveled musicians, who’ve played an essential role in her emergence as an emotionally insightful performer with an arrestingly beautiful sound. The music flows from the scene she’s played a central role in building at Vintage Bar & Grill in Abington, a town a few miles north of Philadelphia. While the sports bar might appear to be an unlikely venue for a weekly jazz session, Lordi approached the management in October of 2014 and got the okay for a trial month. That was almost three years ago, and the music is going stronger than ever.
“The arrangements came out of playing with Sonny and Larry regularly at Vintage,” Lordi says. “There are 10-year-olds and 80-year-old guys who come in and sing, so you can have a seven-decade spread on the bandstand playing the same music.”
Lordi, the mother of three, brings a lifetime of experience to the bandstand. Raised on Patsy Cline, folk music and classic rock, she sang daily in school choirs. As a teenager, she was devoted to new wave and rock but also found her way to Chet Baker, who introduced her to the world of standards.
Quietly nursing a love of singing, Lordi was in her early 30s when she started performing regularly, drawing inspiration from less-is-more vocalists like Baker, Blossom Dearie, Peggy Lee, and June Christy.
She’s honed an invitingly warm and personal sound that brings intimacy to familiar fare. McKenna’s no-nonsense arrangements fit her to a t, highlighting her graceful phrasing on the sensuously swooning “They Say It’s Wonderful,” the briskly swinging “No Moon at All,” andenticing version of “The Lamp is Low” with a particularly incisive McKenna tenor solo.
“I feel like I’m there for the lyricist,” she says. “I love the intersection of lyrics and melody you get in the American Songbook. Songwriters like Arlen, Berlin, and Rodgers and Hart are masters at conveying complex emotions in a concise way and I find it challenging and exciting to interpret their songs with these great musicians.”
The company she keeps couldn’t be more august. Now based in southern New Jersey, Sonny Troy has been a City of Brotherly Love mainstay since the mid-1950s when he broke in with Philly-bred stars Bobby Rydell and Frankie Avalon. With his warm tone and tastefully telegraphic line, he’s mentored generations of guitarists, while accompanying jazz and pop stars. McKenna is also an arranger, composer, and improviser and bandleader who’s been at the center of the Philly music scene for more half a century. He’s played with Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, and Tony Bennett, Clark Terry, Jon Faddis, and Buddy DeFranco. A charter member of Gamble and Huff’s MFSB Orchestra, he’s also appeared as soloist with the Philadelphia Orchestra. As an educator, he’s mentored many of the players in Lordi’s top-shelf band, like trumpeter-turned-valve-trombonist John Swana, and has been featured in concerts presented by ace bassist Matt Parrish (who produced the album).
McKenna started playing with Troy when they accompanied Avalon in the mid-1950s, and they’ve been working together ever since. In many ways Lordi conceived this album as a tribute to these veteran masters. “These arrangements came out of Sonny and Larry playing together weekly,” Lordi says. “I really owe this album to these gentlemen and that session, and it reflects all of the fun we’ve had at Vintage.”
Andrew Gilbert covers music for the San Francisco Chronicle, JazzTimes, and other publications.
The Dream A Little Dream Band is:
Michelle Lordi- vocals
Larry McKenna- tenor
Jay Webb- trumpet
John Swana- trombone