Aug 16, 2010
One of my favorite singers, Abbey Lincoln, has died in New York over the weekend. She was 80 years old. She was not merely a singer, but a songwriter, an actress, an advocate for civil rights, and a participant in some of the most daring jazz recordings of the 1960’s..
As a jazz singer, Ms. Lincoln traced her lineage to Billie Holiday and back to Bessie Smith. She lacked the technical prowess of an Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan. She rarely scatted or improvised on the melody line. Her vocal style was built around her phrasing, interpretation of the lyrics and emotion, drawing on her acting skills.She also stood out from other jazz singers because she mostly performed her original songs rather than relying on standards. She credited jazz pianist Thelonious Monk for encouraging her to become a songwriter after she wrote a lyric to his tune "Blue Monk" for her 1961 album, Straight Ahead.
Straight Ahead and her 1960 collaboration with her husband, the legendary drummer Max Roach, We Insist! – Freedom Now, represented her first great recordings. Thirty years later, she had a brief renaissance in collaborations with Stan Getz, Archie Shepp and Hank Jones, and most importantly, her album A Turtle’s Dream. That album, especially this seminal recording of “Down Here On the Ground”, was praised by critic Stephen Holden in one of my favorite thought pieces on music:
Abbey Lincoln, whose singing suggests Billie Holiday fortified by faith, explores the meaning of life and death in her 1995 masterpiece, “A Turtle’s Dream.” Its nine-minute centerpiece, “Down Here Below,” is her one-sided conversation with a God she both reveres and questions in language that transcends her usually singsongy verses. Leading her ensemble of bass, drums, violin and viola, the pianist Kenny Barron delivers a sublime extended solo that matches the intensity of Ms. Lincoln’s voice, hovering on the edge of rapture and tears. I’ve seen Ms. Lincoln perform the song in concert several times, but no performance came close to the one captured on this record.
Her last album of new material, Abbey Sings Abbey was released in 2007.