Abbey Lincoln

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Abbey Lincoln in The Wallstreet Journal
Abbey Lincoln in Command
By Larry Blumenfeld
July 18, 2007; Page D10

"I never thought of myself as a philosopher," Abbey Lincoln said, sitting on a brown velvet sofa in the parlor of her Upper West Side Manhattan apartment. "But I am. I think about the life I live, a figure made of clay. I think about the things I lost, the things I gave away." Two sentences in, Ms. Lincoln had slipped from spoken reflection to reflexive singing, quoting her song "Throw It Away." Yet it was seamless, so natural was the flow.

An organic declarative power is perhaps the greatest charm of Ms. Lincoln's artistry. During a career that spans more than a half-century, she has emerged as one of this country's most commanding singers, defining jazz-vocal values even as she transcends the genre, rising in stature as she's aged. At 76, despite recent open-heart surgery, she's unfettered and, in moments, bursting with energy. "I'm still writing every day," she says, sitting across the room from the baby grand piano at which she often composes, and surrounded by some of the portraits she's painted over the years: her father; her mother; "The Merry Dancer," a mythical figure for which she named one song. Her sprawling but modest ground-floor apartment is filled with artifacts of those who have inspired Ms. Lincoln (a bust of saxophonist Charlie Parker, a photo of singer Billie Holiday), and of her achievements (a National Endowment for the Arts "Jazz Masters" Award). But it's no museum; she envisions the place one day as a community arts center, Moseka House, after the name she was given 35 years ago by an official in Zaire.

Born Anna Marie Woolridge, in 1930, the 10th of 12 children, Ms. Lincoln began her performing career as Gaby Lee. Early on, she met the lyricist Bob Russell, who became her manager. "He's the one who named me Abbey Lincoln," she recalled. "He told me, 'Abraham Lincoln didn't free the slaves, but maybe you can handle it.'" The most liberating elements of Ms. Lincoln's legacy may be her original compositions and lyrics. Back in 2002, Ms. Lincoln performed a star-studded three-night stand at Manhattan's Alice Tully Hall, billed as "an anthology of her songs." The concerts seemed like a slowly unfurling banner of identity from a singer who manages to exude both an elder's wisdom and a child's wonder, who suggests by example the many paths possible for jazz vocalists willing to go their own way. She'll likely summon the same spirit in August, headlining both days of New York's Charlie Parker Jazz Festival.

On the new "Abbey Sings Abbey" (Verve), Ms. Lincoln frees her compositions from their previous trappings. There's not a piano to be heard on these 12 tracks; Ms. Lincoln's rich, supple and slightly grainy voice is instead in the company of acoustic, electric and pedal-steel guitars, with bass, drums and an occasional accordion or cello.

The recording leans on Ms. Lincoln's relationship with Jean-Philippe Allard, the producer and Polygram France executive who, nearly 20 years ago, signed her to what is now the Verve Music Group. Ms. Lincoln's "The World Is Falling Down," released in 1990, at a time when both she and the label were reviving their profiles, was both a commercial and critical success. Eight albums followed, with musical collaborators ranging from saxophonist Stan Getz to tap dancer Savion Glover, helping solidify the reputations of both singer and label.

But Mr. Allard and Jay Newland, the engineer for most of Ms. Lincoln's albums, had long envisioned a more straight-forward, less refined presentation of Ms. Lincoln's songs. "We heard them as folk tunes," said Mr. Allard from his Paris office. Ms. Lincoln had in fact planted the suggestion herself, with her version a decade ago of Bob Dylan's "Mr. Tambourine Man." And last year, while working on an album by the African pop singer Ayo, Messrs. Allard and Newland captured Ms. Lincoln's "And It's Supposed to Be Love" in a rootsy arrangement by guitarist Larry Campbell. Ms. Lincoln, who was in the studio for that take, approved.

"How can we strip so much away without losing something?" Mr. Campbell recalled wondering of his assignment for "Abbey Sings Abbey." "I wasn't sure it would work, or that Abbey would like it. But the songs themselves are so powerful, I was a fool to worry." Jazz bassist Scott Colley and drummer Shawn Pelton, known primarily for rock, grounded most tunes in the slow swing Ms. Lincoln favors, but they find new grooves too, especially on "The Music Is the Magic." Three songs feature accordionist Gil Goldstein and cellist Dave Eggar, as arranged by Mr. Goldstein. "There aren't many people who can write tunes like these," said Mr. Goldstein, "that sound so familiar you'd think they must have existed a long time ago."

Of course, there's much life history packed into these songs. A half-century ago, Ms. Lincoln had spent two years in Honolulu, singing in nightclubs and catching an earful, when they'd visit, of Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, whose styles greatly influenced her own. Soon after, she appeared with Jayne Mansfield in the film "The Girl Can't Help It." In performance, she garnered attention as much for how well she filled out a red dress formerly worn by Marilyn Monroe as for her voice.

"Max said that he hated that dress," Ms. Lincoln recalled of drummer Max Roach, who was her husband from 1962 to 1970. "I burned it, and never looked back." With Mr. Roach she was drawn into a world of cutting-edge musicianship and bold activism. In 1960, Ms. Lincoln's electrifying cries were emblematic of the outrage underpinning Mr. Roach's landmark album "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite." Her original lyrics for her 1961 album "Straight Ahead" (Candid) sparked discussion of racial prejudice and even prompted one critic to brand her a "professional Negro." "We all paid a price," she said calmly, but it was important to say something. It still is."

Cassandra Wilson is one of many singers who feel a great debt to Ms. Lincoln. "She opened up doors," Ms. Wilson once told me, "not just in the sense of career possibilities but as empowerment to be myself when I sang." And for alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, who has performed and recorded with Ms. Lincoln, "the most unusual thing about her is her brilliant sense of phrasing and placement. It's a unique sense of time, something difficult to put into words but essential to real freedom."

"Abbey Sings Abbey" opens with the album's one melody not composed by Ms. Lincoln -- "Blue Monk," by pianist Thelonious Monk, for which she wrote lyrics in 1961. It ends with Ms. Lincoln's "Being Me," which contains the line, "Being me, I dared to be myself alone." Ms. Lincoln did and still does, bearing jazz culture like few before her.

Mr. Blumenfeld is a Katrina Media Fellow with the Open Society Institute, documenting the experiences of musicians in New Orleans. He writes about jazz for the Journal. 
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