Jazz singer Andy Bey conveys the same kind of otherworldly physical command as Michael Jordan, who often seemed suspended in air, elevating all he did with the ball. That’s because Bey has mastered the singer’s dream—perfect breath support. The great Sarah Vaughan had it. She was among Bey’s earliest heroes, and a classmate of his older sisters in a jazz-rich Newark decades ago. Back then, Bey gained some fame as a child singer and, later, in a trio with those sisters, Salome and Geraldine. In the ’70s he made memorable recordings with Horace Silver (the pianist’s United States of Mind series) and Gary Bartz (the saxophonist’s Harlem Bush Music projects), but at 64, he’s yet to gain a spotlight beyond the jazz-insider community.
A more earthbound Jordan—Bey’s industrious producer, Herb—has worked to remedy that situation. Since 1996, Bey has recorded four CDs showcasing his mixture of virility, tenderness, and spiritual heft. The best of the lot is the newest: American Song, where he rises to lofty results on 10 familiar standards.
Jazz’s sacred texts are for the most part, well, sacred. Yet Bey’s take on Ellington’s “Prelude to a Kiss” stands up alongside Johnny Hartman’s performance on the classic 1963 “My One and Only Love” he recorded with John Coltrane. Here Bey’s phrasing anticipates Frank Wess’s tenor sax solo; a bit earlier, he interlocks perfectly with Dwight Andrews’s bass clarinet countermelody. The latter element seems an impossible fit, yet it achieves a logical beauty—one of several stirring details provided by Geri Allen, the album’s chief arranger as well as the pianist on two tracks.
A warm, spacious sound prevails. Horns add oddly glowing harmonies; piano and guitar trade spare, complex chords. But Bey’s rich baritone is the fulcrum throughout. The care with which he calibrates the strength of his breath enables him to belt bluesy riffs with authority, to enlarge the finest nuance, and to trace melismas with unwavering pitch and clarity. Combined with the bolero rhythm and upbeat accents employed here, the odd intervals of Lionel Hampton’s “Midnight Sun” could freeze any singer. But Bey’s vocal flows, carrying Johnny Mercer’s wordplay toward fresh implication. When Bey moves from a whisper to what he calls his “power voice” on “Caravan,” his voice explodes like Dizzy Gillespie’s horn. Scatting softly at the end of “Lush Life,” he seems adrift in the loneliness he’s just described. “Speak Low” begins with finger snaps and deep sighs. From there, Bey’s off—another well-timed jump into a resilient cushion of air, raising the game.
Andy Bey plays Le Jazz Au Bar March 25, 26, and 28.