by Len Lear
“When I fall in love with a song, that’s it. I don’t care when it is from or who sang it or what style it is. If I fall in love with it, I’m going to find a way to sing it. I guess the song just wants what the song wants.” — Michelle Lordi
Ooh la la and tres magnifique! If you yearn for those jazzy ballads and uptempo classics from the Great American Songbook, lifelong Chestnut Hill area resident Michelle Lordi just might be your soul sister. Michelle, 41, who grew up in Lafayette Hill and attended Germantown Academy, is a talented warbler who sings songs you will not hear on your car radio, songs whose words you can actually understand.
And Michelle will be performing those songs this Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights along with jazz musicians Mike Frank, piano; Eli Sklarsky, drums, and Lee Smith, bass, at the brand new subterranean jazz club underneath Paris Bistro, which has been packing them in for French cuisine at the corner of Germantown and Southampton Avenues, next door to the Chestnut Hill Hotel. (Michelle has also been booked at Paris Bistro for the weekends of April 10-13 and June 12-15.)
Lordi’s influences run from Blossom Dearie, Chet Baker and June Christie to The Talking Heads, 1970s soft rock and Radiohead. She fell in love with the songs of the 1930s and ’40s, “and I am lucky enough to make music with some of the most creative and dynamic jazz musicians on the scene today.”
But if you are expecting another “cover” version of “All of Me” or “Fever,” you might be disappointed. And if you don’t think that a ’70s rock anthem can become a beautiful jazz song, you’ll be surprised. Michelle’s musical repertoire also includes unusual “B” sides and forgotten love songs from the 1930s to the present.
In the past couple years, Michelle has performed at Chris’ Jazz Café, Milk Boy, The Academy of Natural Science, the Union League and Roller’s Flying Fish, among others. She has often been accompanied on piano by two well known local musicians — Tom Lawton, who was once the “piano man” at the Four Seasons Hotel in center city and a teacher at Temple’s Esther Boyer College of Music Jazz Studies; and George Sinkler, a long-time pianist on Monday nights at the Whitemarsh Valley Inn in Lafayette Hill.
Sometimes other “irregular” local jazz musicians such as bass DeWitt Kay, drummer Ralph Costello and saxophonist Dave Sesso have sat in and backed up Michelle. Some others whom Michelle had never even met, much less played with, would join in the music-making. “It’s so random, but it’s so much fun,” said Lordi. “We don’t have rehearsals, so you’ve got to be able to sing by the seat of your pants. But even though it’s never perfect, practice makes it fun. Our commandment is ‘Thou shalt not bore.’
“I’ve always loved to sing!” she added definitively, since the time she chose to miss recess in school to be in the chorus, and despite the discomfort of learning stage presence at age 10, when her mother pushed her on stage to perform a tune or two.
However, although singing has always been closest to her heartbeat, Michelle studied visual arts and photography at the Parsons School of Design in New York and pre-med at Loyola College in Maryland. As a “day job,” she worked for 10 years at Novartis selling for pharmaceutical companies, and for Therapy Source in the King of Prussia area pairing various types of therapists — “lots of musicians” — with hospitals and schools.
But like the countless thousands who try out for American Idol and other “reality” TV shows to turn dreams into real life, the talented Hiller kept alive her dream of performing, if not as a full-time musician in New York or L.A., then at least before appreciative audiences in her home town while maintaining a more practical day job. “My sales experience is valuable,” she said, “because part of my performing job is to see that people come to see me in the first place.”
Michelle, who got married last year and also has private voice students, has a son, John, 10, from a previous marriage, and a daughter, Vivian, 11 months. She has two much younger half-brothers, 18 and 21, who both went to Chestnut Hill Academy for their primary school years and then Penn Charter and now Johns Hopkins and Tufts Universities, respectively.