Jazz Philadelphia's Hometown Heroes: Spotlight on Vocalist Michelle Lordi
The best jazz singers have a knack for connecting with audiences. Few musicians of any stripe share Michelle Lordi’s gift for creating them. While Lordi has graced the usual stages with her emotionally captivating, starkly expressive voice—South and Chris’ Jazz Café close to home, renowned venues like New York City’s Birdland and Mezzrow farther afield—she’s made a unique home for herself in far more unexpected places.
For six years Lordi hosted a weekly Wednesday night session at Abington’s Vintage Bar and Grill, carving out a singularly inviting space for the music within the unlikely confines of a suburban sports bar. More recently she shifted her home base to Roberts Block, a rustic-chic restaurant adjoining the Glenside SEPTA station, while curating a series of summer concerts amid the greenery and sculptures of Abington Art Center.
And rather than courting wholly new audiences on the road, she’ll bring one with her. Through her Bandwagon Excursions events, Lordi transported busloads of Philly jazz lovers to her gigs in New York and beyond. When the pandemic prevented audiences from gathering together throughout 2020, she quickly adapted to livestreaming with longtime bassist Matthew Parrish and Bump Jazz productions to bring the concert experience into listeners’ living rooms.
It can be overwhelming just maintaining one’s own career, so why put forth so much effort to create spaces for not only herself but others to reach untapped jazz lovers? Lordi seemed taken aback that anyone would even ask.
“Oh my gosh, is that a trick question?” she replied after a brief, stunned silence. “It’s what I do. It gives us life. I feel like music is there to be shared. It’s a way to connect with family and community. No matter what you give out, you always get more back from the community.”
Lordi learned that lesson firsthand following the fire that consumed her home on the day after Christmas 2017. One day after losing nearly everything she owned – her family, thankfully, escaped the inferno intact—she was back on stage at Vintage wearing the only clothing she had left.
“I showed up and everyone I knew was [there],” Lordi recalled the following year. “I thought maybe I’d died and it was my wake. Someone had set up the sound, nobody was sitting where we were supposed to be playing, a whole crew of musicians came and played.”
Community has always been central to Lordi’s passion for music. She studied photography in college but sought refuge from her fellow art students. “Freshman year you had to take all the same classes as the fine art majors,” she said. “But I couldn’t draw, so I would hide in the hallway with what I realized later were the jazz students practicing their saxophones.”
The same sense of embracing all comers, whether they make a neat fit or not, applies increasingly to her take on singing jazz. While she has interpreted her fair share of standards, and can bring a lyric vividly to life with compelling directness, she grew up with rock, pop and country music and has allowed those influences to permeate her repertoire.
Her daring 2019 album Break Up With the Sound features songs by Hank Williams and the Rolling Stones alongside Cole Porter and Billie Holiday classics, while her original music is graced by tinges of adventurous rock and forlorn Americana. The title track of her 2015 release Drive was the familiar 80s hit by The Cars, rendered in less familiar fashion. “I believe in a wider perspective of jazz,” she explained.
That’s led to a particularly expansive and ever-growing list of collaborators as well. She’s performed and recorded extensively with pianist Orrin Evans, most recently recording with his dauntless trio Tarbaby; and enjoys an ongoing collaboration with the genre-defiant artist Warren DeFever, best known for his shape-shifting project His Name Is Alive. She also calls on the talents and wisdom of an older generation, regularly working with legendary saxophonist Larry McKenna and, until his recent passing, guitarist Sonny Troy.
She’s also worked with saxophonist Donny McCaslin, a veteran of the Maria Schneider Orchestra and bandleader for David Bowie’s final album Blackstar; drummer Rudy Royston, a frequent partner for iconic guitarist Bill Frisell; and experimental guitarist Tim Motzer, whose distorted atmospherics lend an ethereal haze to Break Up With the Sound.
“I enjoy bringing artists together that you wouldn’t usually see together,” Lordi said. That’s one reason why she continues to call the Philadelphia region home.
“I’m here because of family,” she continued, in this case meaning the word literally. “New York makes a great suburb of Philadelphia for working artists. I can create music opportunities here while still pursuing music outside of here. But I love Philadelphia because a lot of the musicians I love are from here. Philadelphia has a rich resource of history and present in music, and I’m grateful to be part of it.”