Opening the Opener: Patti Littlefield and John Rangel (With Update)

Patti Littlefield

Patti Littlefield

The New Mexico jazz audience has had this Thursday night marked on the calendar for weeks: the NEA Jazz Master vocalist Sheila Jordan and her bassist Cameron Brown will be opening the spring season at the Outpost Performance Space. That’s reason enough to get over there, but be sure you’re in your seat at 7:30, because you don’t want to miss the opening act: vocalist Patti
Littlefield and pianist John Rangel. We don’t get to hear either one of them often enough, and they will do
considerably more than just warm you up for Jordan.

It’s only right that Littlefield would open for Jordan. “I’ve been studying with her for years, and she doesn’t even know it, because I’ve learned so much from her CDs,” says Littlefield. Resonance, the inventive duo that graced New Mexico stages for a couple of years,
featuring Littlefield and tuba/didgeridoo player Mark Weaver, was inspired by the vocalist/bassist format that Jordan made famous.

A daring and passionate vocalist with a disarming sense of humor, Littlefield has a knack for finding overlooked gems and making them her own, including a few that she discovered via
Jordan’s albums. Concerned that she might inadvertently include something in her set that
Jordan was planning to do, she consulted jazz maven Mark Weber, a friend of Jordan’s, to see if he could shed some light on Jordan’s current set list. Weber, instead, encouraged Littlefield to take one of Jordan’s landmark tunes out for a ride as a way of honoring the iconic vocalist. You’ll have to wait for the concert to find out which tune it is because it’s intended as something of a surprise for Jordan.

Littlefield says she’s going to stay in the bluesy jazz mode in her set. She’s planning to perform five or six tunes, among them Percy Mayfield’s “Send Me Someone to Love;” “Comin’ Home, Baby,” a top-40 hit for Mel Tormé in 1962; and “You Better Love Me While You May,” which she first encountered at Shakey’s Pizza.

That’s where she got her start as a vocalist, at age 16, singing “Cry Me a River.” “It was the only song I knew,” she says, laughing. “They had a banjo player and this rinky-dink piano player. They’re wearing straw hats and vests, and I was torching it out.” Another vocalist sang “You
Better Love Me While You May,” from the musical High Spirits. “I’m a lyric person, and so the lyrics are what got me on this song,” she says. “It really lends itself well to a nice jazz feel.”

Littlefield will also do “Small Day Tomorrow,” which has become something of a signature tune for her, and an arrangement of a new song in her repertoire, which she wants to keep a secret for now. She will only identify it as a folk-rock tune. My guesses were fruitless in uncovering the mystery. Another possibility is B.B. King’s “Never Make Your Move Too Soon.”


John Rangel

She considers it “an extremely high honor” to be working with Rangel, whom she first met when singing backup for Cathryn McGill a few years ago. “He’s so smart and so good, and he’s so patient, and he’s creative and
inspiring,” she says in a spontaneous outburst of praise for the pianist, who is a top-drawer player and arranger. “He listens to me. When a musician listens to a singer, that’s real
important—and it’s slightly rare.”

Musicians, singers and instrumentalists alike, will tell you that the most important thing in playing music is the ability to listen. Sheila Jordan’s ability to listen is what so impressed Charlie Parker, Jordan’s mentor, who introduced her as “the singer with the million-dollar ears.” Both Littlefield and Rangel have great ears, and it’s what makes listening to them so satisfying.

Update: In the interest of accurate reporting, I should tell you that the dazzling duo has made some changes to the program. I won’t spell them out because there may be more. So go with the flow, and enjoy whatever they decide to perform.

© 2015 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.

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