She Writes the Songs

Abbey Lincoln Shows Us What She's Got

The result of Abbey Lincoln's decision to make her concert triptych at Alice Tully Hall March 7 through 9 a referendum on her songwriting can only be described as triumphant. If the performances were occasionally uneasy, her ipso facto argument left little doubt that her oeuvre is compelling, distinctive, and, oddly enough, given her characteristic melodic tropes and dilatory tempos, varied. Boring she never was. Two questions heard ringing in response were: Who will be first to record an Abbey Lincoln songbook album, and why hasn't it been done before? The second question, though hardly new, may be answered in part by the fact that her book seems older than it is. Many of the 30-plus songs she presented were composed or recorded in the 1990s. A few dating back to the 1970s—"Throw It Away," "Playmate," "Caged Bird"—weren't much heard then. Plus there is the intimidation factor, the seeming inextricability between songs and performer.

Perhaps more important, pop singers aren't in the market for the jazz hymns that are Lincoln's specialty, and cabaret singers (Baby Jane Dexter is an exception) and jazz singers (Kendra Shank is another) are a timid and conservative lot. In pre-Depression days, when jazz singers were mostly blues singers, it was not uncommon for them to work on their material, contributing a lyric and even a melody. But as jazz relied more on the Broadway and Hollywood songwriting factories, singers became interpreters. Rare exceptions (Billie Holiday wasn't really a songwriter; Bob Dorough and Dave Frishberg obviously are) simply prove the rule of Ella, Sarah, Carmen, and the rest. A good number of jazz standards and semi-standards arose when lyric writers claimed tunes by musicians (Thelonious Monk, Ralph Burns, Benny Golson, Horace Silver, Randy Weston, and Bill Evans, among many others), but none of those composers could offer three evenings' worth of songs conceived as songs. You would have to go back to the pre-war era of Ellington and Waller for that.

So Lincoln's accomplishment, historically, has little precedent, especially considering its late flowering. Though she began recording in 1956, her career veered in so many directions with long detours from music that she was a peripheral figure before Polydor France initiated a series of Verve CDs in 1990, when she was 60. The World Is Falling Down re-established her as a force, not least because she is so forceful on two originals. The magnificent You Gotta Pay the Band clinched the case, and six superbly produced subsequent releases—faltering only with the children's choirs on Devil's Got Your Tongue—uncovered the range and poetic intensity of her repertory while occasioning reassessment of her previous work. Long before Jazz at Lincoln Center's triptych, she had taken on diva stature, her unmistakable vocal attack complemented by her signature appearance: a tall, lean, mature beauty in a long black dress, with a broad-brimmed black hat, cornrows, and a cool stately manner that italicized every phrase. As her voice became huskier, she retained her breath control, exemplified in whole notes, high notes, shouts, and climactic finishes. Her increasing strength as an artist was no illusion. The records prove it.

Her accomplishment has little precedent.
photo: Jack Vartoogian
Her accomplishment has little precedent.

All of her attributes were on display at the concerts, along with her familiar acerbity in getting the rhythm section to follow her lead or provide a decisive lead of its own. Several times she asked for a meatier introduction or a tightening of the beat; yet if those stop-and-go moments suggested a paucity of rehearsal, they also provided serendipitous diversions, as when she admired the pizzicato solo of cellist Jennifer Warren and asked for similar accompaniment to her vocal reprise, or asked for the band to lay out, or turned the beat around. She also fooled around with her repertory, which at each concert began in accordance with the Stagebill program, but soon veered away. Even so, she focused on songs for which she wrote words and music with two last-minute exceptions, and she wrote the words for one of them as well. If the first night was shakiest—she had trouble getting what she wanted from pianist James Weidman, who had played on her '80s Holiday-tribute CDs—it benefited from a yeoman contribution by Joe Lovano, who, like Warren, appeared on Lincoln's Over the Years. In a couple of instances, he didn't seem to know the tunes, so he'd begin his solos playing eight bars straight, then double-time his way into bravura improvisations.

On a few pieces each evening, she augmented the band with strong-voiced backup singers, Bemshi Shearer and the very impressive Stacie Precia, sometimes for birdlike sound effects, more often to sing chorus repeats, usually in out-of-sync arrangements turned them into canons. Her longtime pianists, Rodney Kendrick and Marc Cary, brought, respectively, a Monkish percussiveness to the second concert and a flush empathy to the third—Cary was right on point. The key saxophone soloist at those concerts was Steve Coleman, dressed in his hip-hop gear, who got hung up on sustained notes for much of concert two, loosening up on "Being Me," and giving freer rein to his uncannily lovely timbre at concert three, especially on "Another World." Of the other guests, the always dynamic Savion Glover improvised a thunderous, intricate, but always accessible obbligato and solo on "Who Used to Dance," and Freddy Cole sang Lincoln's "Circle of Love," backed by Cary, and impeccably finessed his baritone to her alto on "Should've Been," alternating phrases on the chorus tag and clearly relishing the blend.

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