She Writes the Songs

Abbey Lincoln Shows Us What She's Got

Lincoln's performances, notwithstanding a few forgotten lyrics (she got a laugh announcing of her first night's encore, "everybody knows this song," and singing Hoagy Carmichael and Ned Washington's "The Nearness of You"), were impassioned, even chilling—especially those top-note cries and surprising slabs of sustained pitch, the a cappella passages, the growls, the rising glissandi—and her intonation was controlled and sure, though she appeared weaker at the middle concert, which she cut short. No less interest attended the material. It's a measure of how prolific she is that she never got to sing—in some cases, didn't even program—some of her best and best-known pieces, including "Turtle Dream" and "I Got Thunder."

Many of Lincoln's songs proudly—even jauntily—ride on a slow-drag rhythm that she has made her own. She implies a powerful backbeat, but lays so far back on the time that the pieces seem freer than they are. And in fact, they are pretty free in the best sense, exemplifying her craftsmanship as a composer and lyric writer in songs made up of stanzas of different length, usually 16 or eight bars in length: Even when she uses the same stanza or a conventional 32-bar format, she writes more than a single verse; the beguiling "Conversations With a Baby" has four 16-bar verses, with a characteristic rhyme scheme, ABCBDEFE. Many of her tunes sound alike, yet under scrutiny reveal defining differences. When she uses a hymn format or feeling, she often underscores the melody with chords that recall the diminished and augmented substitutions of bebop. It is the difference in construction that allows her to stay moored in a similar tempo—as in an opening segue from "The World Is Falling Down" to "Bird Alone," two of her finest—without flagging in interest or intensity. If some hymnlike pieces, like the vividly eloquent "Down Here Below," suggest a kind of American chanson, others have a gospel-flavored innocence, like "Music Is the Magic," an incantatory piece she did twice.

"Playmate" and "You Gotta Pay the Band" have uncannily nostalgic themes. The former, a splendid duet with Weidman, is a characteristic Abbey-tune yet redolent of "Red River Valley." Lincoln likes long declarative statements and has written many verses that consist of a well-parsed, conversational sentence. "When I'm Called Home," a highlight of the third concert that began as a duet with Cary, has three 10-bar verses, each made up of two or three sentences and, though it's about dying, begins with a disarmingly witty first phrase: "When I'm called home I will bring a book." But that's just the beginning; after a rest, it continues, "that tells of strange and funny turns and of the heart it took to keep on living in a world that never was my own, a world of haunted memories of other worlds unknown." On "I Could Sing It for a Song," she undermines the hymnlike construction with broken rhythms, not to mention an unhymnlike chord change. Probably due to limited rehearsal time, she programmed but did not sing it; the rhythmic conceit with its retards and pauses has to be perfect, as on the record (Over the Years). But she did try others that were no less challenging, including the fast "Storywise," which Lovano rescued when she lapsed on the words, and the ebullient "Story of My Father," with its rocking eight-bar gospel verses, and "Being Me," the best of her self-reflective ballads, and the brazenly cyclic "Love What You Doin' Down There," performed twice and achieving undulating rhythms in its relentless refrain. By the time she wrapped up the last evening with her 24-bar blues taunt, "Hey Lawdy Mama" (her words, music by Nina Simone), the Abbey Lincoln songbook had positioned itself as a formidable challenge to singers in every idiom.

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