Listening to Abbey Lincoln's latest recording, Abbey Sings Abbey (Verve), I'm struck by how, in terms of trappings and production, it's the least jazzy recording in her catalog -- yet it may be the truest to her identity as a singer and songwriter. The power and purity of her achievement may be enough to free up jazz singers and listeners previously enslaved to narrow visions of what a song can be or how it can be sung. At 76, Lincoln outdoes all those thirtysomethings who thrive on vibe, slow-strummed accompaniment, and well-turned phrases.
She's also a liberating presence for those fortunate enough to know her. Below is an excerpt from my recent piece on Lincoln in the Wall Street Journal:
"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.
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