[JPL] David Hajdu on Mark Murphy and Abbey Lincoln from The New Republic

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DAVID HAJDU ON MUSIC

Stolen Moments 
Post date: 09.11.07
Issue date: 09.10.07

Near the end of 1956, two young jazz singers made their first albums: Abbey
Lincoln's Affair ... A Story of a Girl in Love, released by Liberty Records,
a quality- conscious shoestring operation, and Meet Mark Murphy, issued by
Decca, then a major jazz-pop label. Lincoln was twenty-six and black and a
woman, Murphy twenty-four and white and a man, and both had talent and
looks. For half a century, they followed separate and circuitous but roughly
parallel career paths. Both started out singing in traditional modes, soon
developed quirky original styles, indulged their inclinations to extremes,
pushed the tolerance of the general public, moved out of Manhattan (Lincoln
to California, Murphy to Europe), and bought time by doing some acting and
teaching; and then both returned to the New York jazz scene and made a great
deal of mature, sophisticated music.

Now in their seventies, Lincoln and Murphy have both survived bouts of grave
illness and this year released new CDs on the Verve label: Lincoln's Abbey
Sings Abbey and Murphy's Love Is What Stays. Both of the albums are works
about aging--or more precisely, about having grown old and looked death in
the face; and they stand as companionable testaments to jazz's capacity to
accommodate ideas all too rare in mainstream music, primary among them the
notion that the end of life is a part of life worth the attention, the
respect, and even the affection of serious artists and their audiences.

It is startling to find singers taking up the themes of old age and
mortality, and even more surprising to find the artists treating these
subjects honestly and intelligently, with no pretense of enduring youth nor
cheap sentiment--especially at this time of year, the season of glossy,
overdone, feel-good summer concert tours and music festivals. To watch Roger
Daltrey and Pete Townshend parading under the good-because-it's-bad name of
the once young and scary Who, or Mick Jagger prancing about with his
beknighted sixty-four-year-old tongue stuck out, is to submit to a
spectacular delusion of the pop-music world, wherein old age exists not as a
natural phase in the cycle of life and death, but as a state of freakish
artificial youth generated to sustain the feedback loop of narcissism
spinning from the stage through the stands and back again.

Pop culture abhors the old as a matter of good business. After all, as we
age we do tend to grow set in our ways of thinking and feeling--and
therefore in our ways of buying. We are not great consumers anymore, and one
reason we buy less is that we do less. (I should probably note here, in full
mortal disclosure, that my own age is fifty-two.) The old may still have
active lives, as the commercials never fail to remind us; but with the
years, more and more of the activity becomes of the mind. This fact may
serve more than anything else to alienate the old from the rest of America.
To spend more time thinking than doing is one of the few things held in
greater suspicion than to spend time not spending. Thus Abbey Sings Abbey
and Love Is What Stays, both of which are sedate and pensive works, speak so
eloquently in the milieu of age that they sound radical--more genuinely
radical, certainly, than the pseudo-adolescent posturing of Daltrey and
Townshend.

Jazz has long been a music hospitable to aging, because it requires
technical mastery of complex forms, it prizes individuality of expression,
and it calls upon musicians to come to the bandstand with ideas worth
expressing. Experience helps considerably in all these challenges--
experience in living as much as in playing or singing. Several years ago I
discussed some of these issues with Lena Horne, when she was recording her
first album in more than a decade--her own statement on aging and mortality,
which she did in the form of a musical message to departed loved ones,
titled We'll Be Together Again. I asked her why she had let herself lie
fallow for so long, and why she decided to dig back into work in her late
seventies. "I was going through the motions. I thought that being a
nightclub singer was a dumb thing to be," she said of the period when she
had last performed and chose to hang up her sequins. And what happened
during her years of self-imposed exile on Manhattan's Upper East Side? "I
took long walks around the park, and I stayed at home by myself and read
books," she said. "I learned how dumb I really was. Now, that's what I call
getting smart."

Abbey Lincoln, who has acknowledged Horne as an important influence, has
similarly cited uncertainty as a strength acquired late in her career. After
a hypnotic, languorous performance at the Blue Note in New York a few years
ago, she spent a bit of time with fans and reporters outside her dressing
room, and someone asked her what she thought the young Abbey Lincoln would
have made of the woman who had just performed. Lincoln said her youthful
self "wouldn't understand her." Beaming, she added, "I don't understand
her." Indeed, a kind of cryptic wisdom, an odd quality of mature naïveté,
has given much of Lincoln's late-life music its unusual power.

The young Abbey Lincoln had been doing something more conventional, though
doing it well, and the conventions of her time and place were sufficiently
daunting. While the liturgy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame teaches us
that old-fashioned popular music was so atrocious in the mid-1950s that
Elvis had to come forth for pop's salvation, 1956 and 1957--the years of
Presley's sensational arrival and the explosion of rock and roll--were in
fact a time of extraordinary achievement in Tin Pan Alleystyle vocal music.
Frank Sinatra, at the peak of his interpretive powers, released Songs for
Swingin' Lovers and Close to You and More, contrasting gems of romantic
bravura and sweet intimacy. Ella Fitzgerald began recording her now
legendary Songbook series of records (just now being re-issued) devoted to
the canonical popular songwriters, releasing three double-album sets
covering the works of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and Duke Ellington
within two years, with time left for an album's worth of duets with Louis
Armstrong. Billie Holiday gave her valedictory performance at Carnegie Hall,
accompanied by a narrator reading excerpts from her (largely ghostwritten)
memoir, Lady Sings the Blues. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the dazzling
exemplars of jazz "vocalese," recorded their debut LP, Sing a Song of Basie.
And singers such as Sarah Vaughan, Johnny Hartman, Carmen McRae, and Kay
Starr were all doing some of the best work of their lives. The truth is,
jazz-oriented popular music reached a creative peak at the time of rock's
emergence. Adult pop had become an art music, better suited to listening and
contemplation than to dancing and necking, a fact that no doubt contributed
to its abandonment by teenagers. Rock and rollers, the victors in the end,
have written the other side's triumphs out of history.

 

Such was the musical environment that Abbey Lincoln and Mark Murphy dared to
enter fifty-one years ago, and their first albums showed their eagerness to
prove themselves, if not to distinguish themselves, by the prevailing
standards. Abbey Lincoln's Affair and its follow-up, That's Him, are of a
piece: aggressive efforts to exploit Lincoln's beauty by packaging her as a
doe-eyed, man-hungry sexpot. The jacket of the first album showed Lincoln
lying on her back, waiting, laid out as if she were hanging upside down, and
the songs on both albums were compatible messages of submission or paeans to
male gratification: "Warm Valley" (a lyric version of the programmatic
instrumental that Duke Ellington composed to suggest a woman's vagina),
"When a Woman Loves a Man" (in which the singer is a fool in the "one-sided
game" of romance), and other pieces such as "I Must Have That Man," "Strong
Man," and "Don't Explain." Lincoln played the role, but she could not pull
it off. There was too much bite and muscle in her singing for her to sound
persuasively compliant and dim.

Like Murphy in his debut recordings and countless other musicians in their
early work, Lincoln sounded more like her role models--here Billie Holiday,
there Lena Horne or Dinah Washington--than herself. For Murphy, the main
influence was Sinatra, followed by Nat Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. Like many
young singers, too, both Lincoln and Murphy fixed on technique to show off
their vocal equipment and to establish their right to the big time, rather
than employing it in the service of personal expression, as they would learn
to do in a few years. Both initially focused on tonal production, making
full, round notes and sustaining them over two or three bars at a time for
all to behold. And both would soon leave the making of pretty sounds to Jo
Stafford and Vic Damone, and shift their attention to lyrical content. In
the phrase of another fine singer, Barbara Lea, they learned "not to be
afraid to sound bad"--that is, not to sacrifice deeper meaning for surface
beauty.

It helped Lincoln greatly to work with lyrics meaningful to her, as she
began to do in 1959 with her album for the jazz label Riverside, Abbey Is
Blue, which included Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes's "Lonely House,"
several tunes by the under-appreciated Oscar Brown Jr., and, significantly,
the first of her own original compositions committed to record, a piercing
blues called "Let Up." In the 1960s, Lincoln was devoted to civil rights and
taken up with issues of African American identity. She worked closely with
the gracefully probative drummer and composer Max Roach, who married
Lincoln, later parted from her, and last month ventured before her into
death. Under Roach's direction, Lincoln sang and co-composed (with Roach and
Oscar Brown Jr.) parts of a manifesto of black pride and defiance, a
rhythmically multi-layered musical collage for LP titled We Insist: Max
Roach's Freedom Now Suite. Her enthusiasm for music waned in sync with the
jazz audience's diminishing appetite for her politicking, and Lincoln
relocated to Los Angeles, where she made a living acting, primarily for
television, and teaching drama at California State Northridge. Although she
made a few recordings in the 1970s and 1980s, most of them under patrons in
Rome and Oslo and Tokyo, Lincoln did not commit herself fully to music again
until the 1990s, when her career as a singer and songwriter finally came
into bloom. Lincoln was a woman in her sixties, essentially starting over.

Murphy, in the 1960s, grew progressively committed to the hipster bebop that
Lincoln left behind. For a white singer at the time, this was at once a mark
of respect for African American musical culture and a jarring sign of
outdatedness. Murphy, whose early promise as a jazz-pop crossover star was
such that producer Milt Gabler predicted that he would "scare Frank
Sinatra," abandoned any hope of mainstream success; his increasingly loopy
scat solos and hepcat vibe scared the audience. Murphy moved to London,
where he concentrated on acting for BBC television until the mid-1970s, when
he returned to America and began performing and recording vocal music more
deeply committed to bop, more retro, and more kooky than ever. Decades
removed from the Beat era, Murphy no longer seemed a few years behind the
times; he began to come across as fully a classicist, an artist committed to
a sensibility born of another time but justifiable as more than kitsch or
nostalgia.

 

Lincoln and Murphy have been revered elders of jazz singing for more than a
decade now. Lincoln, in nearly a dozen albums as a leader, has produced a
late-life body of strange and delightful singsongy original compositions,
freewheeling ruminations on her life, which she has performed with a sure,
unaffected voice indifferent to nicety. Murphy, a true improviser with a
sense of abandon, a strength of personality, and a melodic inventiveness
rare in vocal jazz these days, has produced nearly twice as many CDs as
Lincoln--all of them wildly ambitious, some of them just wild. Being an
improviser, he comes off best in live performance, and his frequent shows in
Manhattan jazz clubs are intoxicatingly, almost frighteningly unpredictable.
I would rather watch Murphy sing, on the good chance of getting caught in
the slipstream of one of his spacey vocal rides, than see nearly any of the
hundreds of performers who call themselves jazz singers because they learned
"How High the Moon." Murphy knows how high the moon is, and the way there,
and he's taking passengers.

Their new CDs find both Lincoln and Murphy in the ripest stages of their
creative maturity. On Abbey Sings Abbey, Lincoln revisits many of the best
original songs she recorded over the past decade, including "Bird Alone,"
"Throw It Away," "The Merry Dancer," and "Should've Been." These familiar
pieces sound new here in part because Lincoln's producers and musicians have
provided a new setting: in place of jazz veterans such as Hank Jones and
Charlie Haden on traditional jazz instruments, the group here is composed of
genre-crossing players such as Larry Campbell and Scott Colley, who
accompany Lincoln on acoustic guitar, pedal steel guitar, mandolin,
accordion, and such. The feeling of the record is earthy, of course, and
warm and unhurried. The more significant change is Lincoln's singing,
because her voice is nearly shot, ravaged by age and illness--but she uses
all the liabilities of her vocal equipment as assets, croaking and cutting
notes short, taking in breaths, almost moaning, with her head high,
shoulders back, and stomach out. This is a record by a woman who is not only
unafraid to sound bad but proud of it, and it is beautiful to hear.

On Love Is What Stays, Murphy is concerned mainly with departing. Nearly all
the songs are reflections on loss--"Too Late Now," "Did I Ever Really Live,"
"What If" (the Coldplay song, done seriously and well), "Stolen Moments"
(the Oliver Nelson instrumental with Murphy's lyrics, a signature tune of
his), and nine more in their spirit. Murphy's voice is throaty and dark-hued
but limber, and he sounds spontaneous, as always. He seems not to be singing
the lyrics but thinking the words, and his thought has an unexpected quality
of contentment. He gives us a take on loss--on death, really--without
anguish or self-pity. If, as James Wood has remarked, reading literature
like Saul Bellow's is "a special way of being alive," hearing music such as
Love Is What Stays is to share in a special way of dying.

David Hajdu is The New Republic's music critic.

 Mark Murphy Appears At The Iridium Jazz Club October 4-7



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