Abbey Lincoln: Through the Years

AAJ Staff By

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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.

It was a call from French record producer Jean-Philippe Allard that led to Lincoln's first recording for a major label, The World Is Falling Down (Verve), and began a collaborative relationship that has produced a total of ten important discs to date. The Verve CDs, heavily laden with Lincoln's own compositions and lyrics, have given her the forum necessary to fully expose the depth and breadth of her considerable talent and define the current state of her art while affording her the opportunity to work with veteran artists like Stan Getz, Hank Jones, J. J. Johnson, Jackie McLean, Bobby Hutcherson, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins and younger stars Geri Allen, Roy Hargrove, Jerry Gonzalez, Steve Coleman, and Pat Metheny. Her latest effort for the label, It's Me, returns her to the orchestral setting she first explored on her debut recording Abbey Lincoln's Affair, A Story of a Girl in Love (Liberty/Blue Note) where her vocal interpretation of standards were accompanied by a big band arrangements by Marty Paich, Jack Montrose and the recently departed Benny Carter.

On It's Me the music is arranged and conducted by Alan Broadbent, whose recent orchestral arrangements for Charlie Haden's American Dreams project have received much notice, and Laurent Cugny, who created the striking string arrangements for Lincoln's 1994 release A Turtle's Dream. The orchestra is augmented by the piano of Kenny Barron and bass of Ray Drummond, two sensitive accompanists, who Lincoln half jokingly refers to as "great musicians I can't afford to hire" for regular live performances. The album's other featured soloist is James Spaulding, who like Lincoln is an alumnus of Max Roach's band. The singer credits Universal Jazz Coalition founder Cobi Narita with suggesting Spaulding whose flute and alto saxophone (along with Julien Lourau's tenor) contribute greatly to the strength of the orchestrations and the beauty of the music.

Lincoln's own approach to the music continues to be as personal as ever. While the kittenish quality of her early work has been long gone, so now is the strident sound of the ‘60s and ‘70s. They've been replaced with a more mellow and mature timbre, aged like fine cognac - unmistakably smooth, but not without its satisfying bite. Her slow deliberate interpretations of an old standards like “Skylark” and “Yellow Bird” may at may times betray a sense of melancholic sadness, but then she'll grab hold of a line like "crazy as a loon" and play with it to let you know that she's having fun, too. As she clearly is on her own songs - the soulful “They Call It Jazz” (with its onomatopoetic "razzamatazz") and the funky “Can You Dig It” (where she intones a forty year old line "Is to be or not to be really a question?" - which she credits to her [then] eight-year-old nephew). Then there's her raucous rendition of “Runnin' Wild”, the song sung by Marilyn Monroe in Some Like It Hot, a spirited reconnection to the sexy starlet whose dress she once famously wore early in her own movie career.

Even on the traditional spiritual title track, where she contributes her own additional original lyrics, the singer mixes emotions, sometimes sounding truly prayerful, but at others appearing to have a slightly irreverent tongue in her cheek, as if testifying to her own laughing confession that she can be like "both God and the devil." Lincoln delivers seriously on her reprises of Cedar Walton's Ellingtonian eulogy, “The Maestro” and her collaboration with African pianist Bheki Mseleku “Through the Years” (which could well become her new signature song), fancifully on her own “Chateaux de Joux”, and emotionally on another original, “Love Is Made” and “The Search”, a "sentimental love song" left to her by her late brother Robert Woolridge.

Sounding strong and spry, Lincoln is looking forward her upcoming engagement at the Blue Note. She'll be accompanied by the trio of pianist Marc Cary, bassist Michael Bowie and drummer Jaz Sawyer, younger musicians who have served her faithfully through the years.

Photo Credit
Sue Storey

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