Thursday, August 19, 2010

RIP Abbey Lincoln

NY Times obit here. Fresh Air has some wonderful interviews from the 80s and 90s. Jason Palmer has been writing little bits on his Facebook about his friendship with Abbey.

Ethan Iverson wrote about three Abbey tracks that moved him early and mid-career. I'm ashamed to admit that I don't know that music very well, though Ran Blake assigned the great track "Laugh Clown Laugh" from Abbey is Blue, so I know that. But I am most grateful to Abbey for her records in the early 90s on Verve/Polygram. I grew up around classic jazz- my dad had lots of Ella and Sarah and Anita O'Day, but none of it spoke to me for some reason.

But in about 1990 both Abbey Lincoln and Shirley Horn put out records on Verve that totally, radicaly changed my conception of a jazz singer. Shirley, who I've raved about here before, taught me about sophistication, and patience, and phrasing. Abbey's disc "The World is Falling Down" was about raw power. Not uncontrolled power- she was far too smart and stylish for that, but from that record I always got the feeling that just under that voice was a tremendous force that could come up and smack you silly if you were being dumb. (Some of that is obvious in the NPR interviews, when she talks about married life.) But listen to a track like "I've Got Thunder" (also excerpted on Fresh Air)- sometimes she'll put a little hitch in a multi-syllable word- some folks talk about my po- WER- not because she can't find the time, but because it packs that extra little punch. And as great as her own songs are, the covers are fabulous too- for years I played "How High the Moon" in three, just because Abbey did. (This album also benefits from some fabulous, elegant playing from the great Clark Terry.) The whole album is great, from the cheeky but dark title track to her reimagining of Charlie Haden's "First Song" to the music mentioned about.

The other Abbey album that killed me as a teenager was "You Gotta Pay the Band", the last record Stan Getz recorded in studio. Stan's impending death looms large here, but as on "People Time", his last album, he plays impeccably, as if his mortality focuses him even more than earlier in life. And Abbey's choice of music does nothing to soften the coming blow- "When I'm Called Home" is a meditation on meeting the Maker, and the title track ruminates on the idea of paying the piper that every hard-living artist must ruminate on.

One of the yoga teachers who I studied with early on is big on cute aphorisms, one of which is "Hold Nothing Back." To me Abbey is the epitome of that- from the time she connected with Max Roach on, she was entirely in your face power, entirely who she was and unapologetic for it. That beacon was very powerful to me as a young artist, and now as I approach middle age it is still a beacon and a challenge to stand your ground and speak your peace. I am tremendously grateful to Abbey for being who she was, and challenging us, artists and audience, to play big too.

To close, here's Abbey singing "First Song" on David Sanborn's Night Music. I don't love the backing as much as I do the album version, but here delivery is impeccable.

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