[JPL] The magnificent Abbey Lincoln tackles the most vital songbook yet: her own

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Fri Jun 22 15:34:58 EDT 2007

Dear Abbey
The magnificent Abbey Lincoln tackles the most vital
songbook yet: her own
by Francis Davis
June 19th, 2007 3:08 PM 

Abbey Lincoln
Abbey Sings Abbey

Kendra Shank
A Spirit Free: Abbey Lincoln Songbook

Amid more than 20,000 Chicagoans at a free outdoor
festival about 15 years ago, I found myself sitting
next to a local critic who mentioned how much he was
looking forward to finally hearing Abbey Lincoln in
person. Her albums were few and far between in the
three decades following the incendiary 1960 pair that
completed her metamorphosis from nightclub singer to
anthemic voice for the black cause—then-husband Max
Roach's We Insist: The Freedom Now Suite and her own
Straight Ahead. But minus a spell putting the pieces
back together after her divorce from Roach in 1970 and
then caring for her elderly mother in Los Angeles, it
was at least possible to catch her live in New York
and nearby cities every so often, if not nearly often
My colleague's anticipation brought home how
underexposed Lincoln was nationally before finding a
steadfast champion (as well as a sympathetic producer)
in Verve's Jean-Philippe Allard, beginning with 1990's
The World Is Falling Down. She opened her set in
Chicago that night with the Depression-era anthem
"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", acknowledging her
lineage from Billie Holiday by lagging behind her
rhythm section and attacking each note separately in a
way that let each word beat like a drum. "That does
it," my colleague whispered as Lincoln followed it
with "Ten Cents a Dance." "I'm in love." 

I tell the story because I've got a hunch that Abbey
Sings Abbey, her tenth album with Allard and the first
to feature her compositions exclusively (including the
droll lyrics to Thelonious Monk's "Blue Monk" that she
debuted on Straight Ahead), is going to win Lincoln
plenty of new hearts, to whom I say what I said to my
buddy in Chicago: Welcome to the club. Focusing on
arranger Gil Goldstein's accordion, Dave Eggar's
cello, and Larry Campbell's mandolin and pedal-steel
guitar in lieu of rhythm-and-horns, Lincoln's
accompaniment eclecticizes what are clearly jazz
melodies, performed by a jazz singer, into gospel
("The World Is Falling Down"), prairie ballad ("And
It's Supposed to Be Love"), chanson ("Love Has Gone
Away"), gypsy ("Throw It Away"), cante jondo ("Down
Here Below"), and even something close to nursery
rhyme ("The Music Is the Magic"). In other words,
Abbey Sings Abbey ventures into Norah Jones and
Cassandra Wilson territory, but with a depth and
complexity that sidesteps Starbucks and World Café
cliché along with hidebound jazz conventions. 

All I usually ask of jazz producers is that they do no
harm. But Allard does right by his artist on this
program of self-covers, which seems primarily
concerned with drawing attention to how many stirring
lyrics Lincoln's written without much fanfare over the
decades. (As for her melodies, she worries a dolorous
handful over and over—but they get you every time. And
their uneven bar lengths and metrical irregularities
indicate the words come first and continue to take
precedence once the melody is in place.) The softer
instrumentation suits a 76-year-old woman no longer
equipped to shout the way she did on We Insist. Pitch
has never been Lincoln's strong point, but the absence
of piano renders that question moot. And players
coming from pop, like former Dylan sideman Campbell,
tend to be more attentive to the needs of singers than
most jazz improvisers just waiting their turn to solo.

As a twilight retrospective, Abbey Sings Abbey might
seem to belong to the same genre as Chet Baker's Let's
Get Lost and Sinatra's Duets. But whereas those wasted
icons of male cool had nothing left by then save their
phrasing, Lincoln—who underwent bypass surgery and
aortic valve replacement in March, just months after
these sessions—is in remarkably good voice. Phrasing
is part of it: The way she elides the phrase "now and
then" into a rising and softly released sigh toward
the end of "Being Me" is an object lesson in what good
jazz singing is all about. (Hint: It's not about
scatting, which is just another form of filigree.) But
the true test is "Down Here Below," essentially a love
song to God with a spiraling melody requiring her to
begin each new verse with a leap—although her voice is
frayed, she's singing full-out and pulling it off. 

Given Abbey Sings Abbey's spiritual reach, a better
comparison might be to Johnny Cash's stripped-down
sessions for Rick Rubin, although Lincoln is
interpreting her own material. Maybe because her best
lyrics approach poetry (take "And It's Supposed to Be
Love," a powerful account of spousal abuse from the
point of view of a woman on the receiving end), what I
find myself thinking about as I listen isn't another
album at all, but Yeats's "When You Are Old," for his
warrior woman Maud Gonne—only here it's the pilgrim
soul herself measuring her moments of glad grace
against sorrows that have always been more evident in
her voice than in her changing face. 

Most biographical portraits of Lincoln imply that her
sporadic discography during what should have been her
prime was industry payback for the political edge of
We Insist and Straight Ahead. But if she was such a
pariah, why did Hollywood cast her opposite Sidney
Poitier in For Love of Ivy in 1968, and why was she
nominated for a Golden Globe? And wasn't black
indignation all the rage in the early '70s, prime time
for Nina Simone and Gil Scott-Heron? Blues unrelated
to politics may have been what held Lincoln back, but
that's a door left closed in interviews. Where she's
left it ajar is in her music—in her lyrics, but also
in an unconcealed vulnerability at odds with both her
militant history and the matriarchal image she's
acquired with age. As with Miles Davis on ballads,
this vulnerability can be her greatest strength as a
performer, and never more so than on Abbey Sings
Abbey, where the novel instrumentation (novel for her,
anyway) throws it into bold relief. I can't imagine
anyone hearing a track from it and not being moved to
the quick. She's become our greatest living jazz
singer, and this is her crowning achievement. 

In showing that Lincoln has written more good songs
than the dozen on Abbey Sings Abbey, Kendra Shank's
tribute A Spirit Free inadvertently proves that
Lincoln's only true interpreter is Lincoln herself.
Because her approach is so personal and
straightforward—so close to her speaking
voice—imitation is out of the question. This forces
anyone who would cover her to take a novel approach,
which is the only possible justification for the
quasi-Navajo chanting with which Shank (sounding more
like Sheila Jordan's disciple than Lincoln's) begins
both "The Music Is the Magic" and "Throw It Away." The
latter's lyrics were inspired by Hexagram 25 of the I
Ching, and Shank might think she's restoring them to
their mystical origins. But whereas delivered by
Lincoln, the lines "'Cause you can never lose a
thing/If it belongs to you" come off as hard-boiled as
Clive Owen's "Hold on tightly, let go lightly" in
Croupier, Shank just sounds sappy. She has a big, plum
voice not unlike Linda Ronstadt's, and she
swings—she's in her element on a song like "I've Got
Thunder (and It Rings)," where momentum is all. But
there's a world of difference in hearing the
valediction "Hold the curtain open, it's time to take
a bow"—from "Being Me," which closes both
albums—delivered by a woman in her seventies and by
one still in her forties. It's a sentiment too big for
Shank, in a way that has nothing to do with the size
of her voice. 

Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

You snooze, you lose. Get messages ASAP with AutoCheck
in the all-new Yahoo! Mail Beta.

More information about the jazzproglist mailing list