Review by Brad Walseth
Abbey Lincoln's career has been one filled with all of the experiences life can bring. From her start as a "glamour girl" who sang "come hither" tunes and appeared as Sidney Poitier's love interest in "For the Love of Ivy," through her marriage to drummer and social firebrand Max Roach during the tumultous Civil Rights Era. When her social activism brought a backlash that seemingly brought her career to an end, she traveled to Africa and focused on life itself before Producer Jean-Phillipe Allard rediscovered the singer and began producing a string of excellent albums through the '90s. Drawing primarily from the songs Lincoln wrote for these sessions, "Abbey Sings Abbey" is a testament to the singer's lyricism and ability to bring her life experiences to bear in her delivery, wrought by 77 years of life, love and loss.
The twist on this recording is that rather than the usual backing of traditional jazz instruments, piano, bass, horns, strings, etc... Allard has placed the singer in more of a folk, country, blues setting, with Bob Dylan sideman Larry Campbell on acoustic, electric, pedal steel and resonator guitars and mandolin. NYC jazz first call bassist Scott Colley and rock session drummer Shawn Pelton provide the rhythm section. Dave Eggar adds cello, while Gil Goldstein flavors the sound with his accordion. At first startling, as on the blusey opener, Lincoln's version of Monk's "Blue Monk," the instrumentation grows on you with repeated listening. The earthy sound gives an added gravitas to Lincoln's already weighty musings and gives the presentation the strong roots to support the singer's deep contemplative subjects.
Like Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf, Lincoln's voice is a golden treasure of weariness and hard-won wisdom. A true descendant of Holiday, she takes a similar of lagging behind the beat to give the words an extra dose of meaning. Unlike the cockiness of many rock singers who seem to believe they know it all, Lincoln looks back at the wealth of experience she has gained and in the end finds that perhaps the greatest knowledge is to acknowledge you can't know everything. The maturity and perception here is striking and the overall mood is one of melancholy, reconciliation and somewhat bemused acceptance of fate.
"Bird Alone," a meditation on loneliness, not Charlie Parker as sometimes believed, has been done well before, on 1991's "You Gotta Pay The Band" - Stan Getz's last session - but this is a lovely version as well that speaks volumes. "Throw It Away" and "Love Has Gone Away" benefit from Goldstein's delightful accordion, which gives the music a universal tint. Perhaps the centerpiece of the album is Lincoln's stunning cry out to God, "Down Here Below," while the fairy-tale-ish "The Merry Dancer" is quite suited to the folk-dance backing given by the band.
Lincoln's voice doesn't possess a wide range, and her skills have clearly diminished, even from her recrodings of the '90s, yet the remaining tatters exhibit more life
then younger singers of astonishing octave ranges and "pretty" voices. Song subjects move across the great subjects of life, including loving and losing each other, loneliness, art, growing old, with sadness, but few regrets. A culmination of a great career, "Abbey Sings Abbey" is a singular event and perhaps, Lincoln's best album. I would hope this album brings attention to the singer's other great albums as well, and that our young singers find inspiration from this exemplar of jazz vocalese.