Jazz vocalist Sheila Landis loves to sing. There's no better way to summarize her. During an interview at the Rochester Hills home she shares with her longtime guitarist-collaborator-beau, Rick Matle, she sings the answers to several questions, belts verses from her blues song in progress ("Taller in the Morning") and plays a Charlie Parker number on kazoo. Her speaking voice is just as intoxicating as her singing, which is comparable to the great bebop vocalist Sheila Jordan. When Landis is not out gigging with her quartet, her Brazilian band, or doing duets with Matle, she's a medical text editor by day at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital.
She's recorded 16 albums on SheLan Records, a label she formed 29 years ago. The albums are arranged chronologically on a coffee table with the many Detroit Music Awards she and Matle have won.
"I started the label because I knew I wasn't going to get a label deal. It has been over 40 years now and it still hasn't happened," Landis says.
"Plus, I wanted complete control over the material I recorded. It was tough back then. Starting the label was taking a big risk. The drummer that was working with me at the time asked if I was sure I wanted to stick my neck out like that. That became my motto: 'Sticking our necks out since 1981.' I put that on all my e-mails now."
Landis' parents, Jim and Kay, a GM engineer and an administrative assistant, respectively, wanted her to pursue a stabler career, but she wanted to be a singer. Raised in Rochester Hills, one of four kids, she majored in English at Oakland University, but never graduated because she spent most of her time hanging out in the music department. In 1973, at age 20, she landed her first singing gig.
"There was this ad in The Detroit News. A pop group called the Vineyards. I went to this audition, and I got the job. I did it for a couple of months. The guy who ran the band had his drum kit out front, and I had to stand in the back. It was very regimented, and you had to wear certain things. It was like being in the Army," Landis recalls.
After the Vineyards, she got a call to join another now-forgotten band called Method. "I wanted to be in that band. It was based in Flint. That just blew my mind. They were playing all the jazz music I wanted to play."
She performed with the band for a year and developed a strong work ethic. She also performed in a number of disco groups and an outfit called the F-Troop in which she did an Andrews Sisters shtick alongside a one-eyed organist and his brother on drums.
But there was more to her early years than lousy gigs. In the early '80s, she recorded three albums — Jazz Rendezvous, Guess I'll Call It Love, and Bebop Angel — in vibraphone player and drummer Jack Brokensha's home studio.
A transplanted Australian and a mainstay of the Detroit scene for decades, Brokensha, 84, is now semi-retired, having relocated to Sarasota, Fla. Reached by phone the other day, he recalled Landis as quite the character:
"She was part of the jazz gang around Detroit. She was a free spirit. Back then, she was the most contemporary singer we had in Detroit. I know that. She wrote her own stuff, which was very fresh. How many versions of standards can you record? She always had good musicians with her. She had a little thing happening vocally and the way she wrote was hip. That's the best way I can put it."
She also caught the ear of trumpeter and bandleader Dizzy Gillespie, whom she warmed up for once in what was then the Montreux Detroit International Jazz Festival. Landis says, Dizzy was taken by her buttery phrasing, he wanted her to join his band. That never panned out. But months after opening the trumpeter, Landis was booked at a festival honoring Gillespie.
Around 1984, Landis formed Sheila Landis and Top Drawer, with players befitting the name, including pianist Phil Kelly, bassist John Palen and drummer Jon Knust. Back then, gigs were plentiful — private parties, weddings, and corporate events. A friend suggested Landis add a guitarist to the mix. Enter Matle, a self-taught player, adept at styles from rock to jazz.
Landis was immediately smitten. "I fell in love. I liked his sound. The first time he worked with me he had on a wrinkled tuxedo, but I overlooked that. He was punctual, and the biggest thing was his seriousness about the music. That's why hooking up with Rick was so important. He had good ears and a desire for the music. And he liked producing records."
Matle has produced and performed on 11 Landis' albums. Matle also convinced a reluctant Landis to perform as a duo along the lines of Tuck and Patti, the jazzy Grammy winning husband-wife guitarist-vocalist team. Landis jokingly says it was a rare occasion when the guitarist got his way.
Their personalities are different. Landis is a free spirit. Matle, is straight-laced. However, musically, they're in sync.
"He's my left-hand man, on the same side as my heart. Rick keeps me musically motivated. Otherwise, I would just watch the Discovery Health Channel all the time," she says.
On the new disc with Matle, Heart Plaza, as on a number of their discs, she works from the words of local poets Margot LaGattuta , Irv Barat, herself and others, animatedly half-speaking, half-singing, sometimes blending the talking and singing into improvised scat and pure sound. Matle plays throughout, shifting textures to match the changing moods and motif, as does frequent collaborator Dennis Sheridan on percussion. John Lindberg of the String Trio of New York plays bass through much of the disc, and Wendell Harrison overdubs a reed choir on one cut.
More than anything, the album shows her range as an improviser, transforming her voice into a trumpet, trombone, and a harmonica at will. Many jazz vocalists are content singing standards, and Landis has done plenty of those live and on record — from "The Girl from Ipanema" to "Blues in the Night" — but she also likes to shake things up.
Landis and Matle gig regularly, and last weekend they celebrated the one-year anniversary of a Sunday gig at the soul food eatery Bean and Cornbread. They're also looking forward to hitting the festival circuit this summer.
Her next project, by the way, is an ambitious one, even for her. She wants to assemble a band of kazoo players to perform the music of Charlie Parker. Now that's creative.
Sheila Landis and Rick Matle perform Sundays at noon at Beans and Cornbread, 29508 Northwestern Highway, Southfield; 248-208-1680. Their full schedule is updated regularly at myspace.com/sheilalandis.Charles L. Latimer plans to sing his questions for his next Metro Times jazz article. Send comments to [email protected]