Abbey Lincoln: Through the Years

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While the kittenish quality of her early work has been long gone, so now is the strident sound of the
Submitted on behalf of Russ Musto

Abbey Lincoln is jazz' golden lady, the music's marvelous magical matriarch whose impressive 50 year career has taken her from smooth supper club singer and movie star to distinctive jazz vocalist, fiery social activist, and highly regarded lyricist and composer. Her unique and inspiring body of work was honored last year by Jazz at Lincoln Center with a three evening concert program “Abbey Lincoln: Over the Years - An Anthology of Her Compositions and Poems”, that featured admiring special guests including fellow vocalist Freddy Cole, saxophonists Steve Coleman and Joe Lovano and the acclaimed young tap dancer Savion Glover. Her most recent CD, her tenth for the Verve label, features her peerless vocals accompanied by a full orchestra with strings and veteran jazz players Kenny Barron, Ray Drummond and James Spaulding.

Abbey Lincoln's first album for the Riverside label was called That's Him. Her new CD is titled It's Me. The irony, though unintentional, is not lost on her. She notes, "When I came to the stage, the women sang about a man and the men sang about a woman...that was the extent of the offering. Then I came to a stage (in my development) and I finally learned to become social, because I have something to say about life other than my love interests and sexual habits . . . I find that disgusting. There's so much [else] to talk about. It's Me is an admission of life, That's Him is just a romantic notion."

The singer credits her former husband Max Roach with inspiring the change in her approach to music. "When I had met Max Roach, he was with Clifford Brown and that was the first time I ever heard an artist. Years later I was in New York, miserable because I was working supper clubs and I wasn't expressing myself and I saw him again, and he told me that I didn't have to do things like that. He made me an honest woman on the stage. And I have been performing in that tradition ever since. I feel that I'm a serious performer now, whereas before I wanted to be but I didn't know how.”

Lincoln's first collaboration with Roach, the classic We Insist: Freedom Now Suite, with her powerful interpretations of Oscar Brown, Jr.'s incendiary lyrics, particularly the screaming centerpiece of “Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace”, heralded her place as black music's most socially conscious singer since her idol Billie Holiday's recording the antilynching anthem “Strange Fruit”. Later appearances on the drummer's Impulse recordings, Percussion Bittersweet and It's Time confirmed the commitment to the revolutionary role she would take with her own music.

The characteristically honest Lincoln also gratefully acknowledges the indirect role Roach played in helping her realize her talent as a composer. "I wrote a lyric to Thelonious Monk's “Blue Monk”. I was recording a record called Straight Ahead," she remembers, "and Max Roach was the A&R man and he asked Thelonious to come to the session and listen to the lyric to see if we could use it. Later, Thelonious said to me [in Max Roach's liner notes], that Abbey Lincoln is not only a great singer and a great actress; she's a great composer. And finally I figured it out... I figured that even though I had never written a composition that I had the intelligence, that I didn't have to write lyrics to other people's compositions, that I could hear my own just like everybody else... and I started to find the melodies and added lyrics to the melody or melodies to lyrics.”

Despite the artistic and critical success of Straight Ahead, Lincoln would not make another record as a leader until 1973 (after a hiatus of more than a dozen years) when she recorded People In Me. The Japanese recording, which was later reissued by Verve in the U.S., created renewed interest in the nearly forgotten vocalist. The album's title track (her own original autobiographical composition) and a powerful rendition of John Coltrane's Africa, with personal lyrics by the singer recounting her trip to that continent (at the behest of singer Miriam Makeba), reaffirmed her resolve to continue on the trail she had blazed years before, but despite a memorable concert at the Beacon Theatre, she rarely appeared in public and did not record again that decade. The 1980 collaboration with Archie Shepp, Golden Lady, featuring another arresting original ”Caged Bird”, marked her true return to the jazz spotlight and successive appearances at the Village Vanguard, Sweet Basil, and Green Street in New York and a series of recordings for the German record label Enja (Talking to the Sun, and her two volume tribute to Billie Holiday Abbey Sings Billie) brought her acclaim commensurate with her rediscovered art.

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