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.

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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