Abbey Lincoln's career has always been one marked by constant growth and self-discovery. Over the course of her first five albums, beginning with 1956's Abbey Lincoln's Affair: A Story of a Girl in Love
and ending with 1961's Straight Ahead
, she transformed herself from a conventional pop singer into an intensely dramatic jazz singer. However, Ms. Lincoln soon found herself caught up in the profound social and musical changes that swept America in the 1960s. She spent the next three decades in the jazz wilderness recording only about a half-dozen records as leader. So when Verve released The World is Falling Down
in 1990, there was a sense that Abbey Lincoln had finally made her definitive recorded statement. Bringing her considerable talents together with a lifetime of experience, she crafted an album that was substantive, powerful and accessible. What no one could have suspected was that The World is Falling Down
was just the beginning of the most important and deeply satisfying leg of Ms. Lincoln's long artistic journey.
In the last ten years, Abbey Lincoln has produced a stunning series of recordings on which she has explored with hard-earned wisdom and deep insight the ideas of love, family, social justice, self-respect, spirituality, the universe, childhood and age. Along the way she has continued to push herself not only as a musician, but also as a songwriter and arranger. The fruits of that growth can be heard on Over the Years, Ms. Lincoln's eighth studio recording for Verve.
There is an appealing simplicity to the instrumentation on Over the Years. Ms. Lincoln has jettisoned the large, alternating array of guest artists that filled several of her recent albums. Instead, she has built the record around her working trio, which is composed of young, little known, but very impressive musicians. Trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez makes a guest appearance on two tracks, but it is Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone who serves as Ms. Lincoln's primary instrumental foil essentially playing the same role for her that Stan Getz did on 1991's You Gotta Pay the Band.
Like her primary influence, Billie Holiday, Abbey Lincoln possesses a deeply expressive voice and an utterly distinctive approach to rhythm and phrasing that will not appeal to all listeners. In her unflinching search for truth, Ms. Lincoln cuts away at the excesses of a song, be they in the words or the music, until she locates its emotional core. Tunes that might seem nostalgic ("When the Lights Go On Again"), kitschy ("Somos Novios"), or over baked ("Windmills of Your Mind") in the hands of a lesser singer are transformed by Ms. Lincoln into powerful, profoundly personal statements. Over the Years also generates an appealing warmth and tenderness that has increasingly become a part of Ms. Lincoln's emotional vocabulary. She radiates serene contentment on a beautifully sustained reading of the show tune "Lucky to Be Me" and joyful optimism on the delightful folk tune "Blackberry Blossoms," which features outstanding work from Mr. Lovano and guest guitarist Kendra Shank (who is an exceptional jazz singer in her own right).
In addition to adding words to "Blackberry Blossoms," Ms. Lincoln includes four originals on Over the Years. Although she both sings and writes music, Ms. Lincoln is not a singer/songwriter in the pop-folk sense of the term. Her songs are finely crafted marriages of words and music that are strong enough to exist independently of her own performances of them. Fortunately, more and more jazz singers (and even some non-jazz singers) have been discovering the richness of Ms. Lincoln's songs. Her latest compositions stand with the best of her output. "A Heart is Not a Toy," which benefits from a great verse, and "I'm Not Supposed to Know" are the kind of melancholy ballads that jazz singers love. However, the wonderfully quirky "I Could Sing It for a Song" may well be Ms. Lincoln's most distinctive melody since "Throw It Away."
The album closes on an extraordinary performance of "Tender as a Rose." It is not just that the 70-year old Ms. Lincoln sings the song a capella, but that she recorded the same song in the same way 43 years earlier on her second album, That's Him. Ms. Lincoln's voice certainly lacks the power, range and intensity it had in her youth, but her intonation and articulation are still precise. More importantly, her work now is so much richer and more expressive that it is as if the intervening decades had changed the meaning of the words. This performance, like all of those on Over the Years, seems to encapsulate the lessons of a lifetime. However, with Abbey Lincoln it is important to remember that the journey is the thing, and that there are always more lessons to be learned, and, hopefully, more songs to be sung.