In 1959 Abbey Lincoln was poised to make a truly great album, and Abbey Is Blue was it. Not only was it a breakout performance for Lincoln, who delivered on the promise she had already shown, it was also a breakthrough performance in jazz singing.
With the civil rights movement looming over the horizon, no longer did singers need to stick with standards and Tin Pan Alley tunes and could truly sing about subjects that mattered to them. Lincoln picked up Billie Holiday's skill at inhabiting the lyrics of a song and projecting its emotional content outward, and these songs, all of which deal with sorrow, are stark and harrowing accounts of loss and injustice. There's a sense of social protest in the first half that is tempered with weariness from the fight (especially on Lincoln's own "Let Up ) and "Empty House is surely one of the most melancholy performances on record, featuring isolation and desperation in equal measures.
The backing groups, both Max Roach's and another all-star combo, are a ghostly presence behind Lincoln, popping up through the murk for an occasional solo, but mostly sticking to sparse backing, highlighting the desolation that pervades the entire album. Only "Afro-Blue (the first vocal version of the tune) and "Long As You're Living feature anything close to high-powered riffing. Abbey Is Blue may not be pleasant listening, but it's truly one of the great performances of the fifties and it paved the way for sharply agitated work later on.
A note on the new version: I have always felt that the original CD version was mixed wrong, with the rhythm section buried in the mix; and I hoped that the new 20-bit version would improve matters. This new remaster is crisper, but the piano and bass are still mixed low.
Afro Blue; Lonely House; Let Up; Thursday
Abbey Lincoln: vocals; Kenny Dorham, Tommy Turrentine: trumpet; Wynton Kelly, Cedar Walton, Phil Wright: piano; Les Spann: guitar, flute; Sam Jones, Bobby Boswell: bass; Philly Joe Jones, Max Roach: drums.
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