Wednesday, September 08, 2004

Vibing with Abbey Lincoln

A night with the Abbey Lincoln Quintet at the Blue Note, September 4, 2004

Abbey Lincoln

So my cousin, Tei, and I were vibing with Abbey Lincoln Saturday night - so blissed out afterwards that the both of us didn't seek out any additional after-midnight New York joints and capped the night with a couple of shwarmas topped with pepper sauce, going out on a high as it were. It was a three part epic:

1. Serendipity

It was a spur of the moment thing, really: heading to the Blue Note in the Village to hear Abbey Lincoln. The long lines at PS-1 - the dance show at the MOMA earlier that night didn't augur well for much fun but when in New York, you have options. It seemed a little late for the US Open so we took the long shot and headed to the East Village. No line at the Blue Note - a good sign. We'd timed it well, arriving just as they were seating the second show. We forked out our $20 for bar seats, ordered our drinks and got ready for some jazz from the living legend.

Now mind you there was a little trepidation: when you start calling someone 'living legend', you are subconsciously wondering just how much longer she'll be living. We saw Nina Simone (Tei's favourite) on her last tour the year before she died and that was prime Diva-in-twilight stuff: raucous and rousing but sadly short. Abbey Lincoln is not that old but she was one of the great jazz voices in the fifties and that says a lot - do the math.

I've seen her twice before at Scullers in Cambridge over the years and have most of her albums. She always puts on a good show. There really should have been a third time but that turned out to be the abortive Valentine's Day date - months before "The Girlfriend" became "The Girlfriend". The first time was simply perfect. The second time was good but you begun to worry - she was forgetting a few lyrics...

She now has a quintet. James Spauling is a welcome addition on saxophone and flute - fiery stuff. Marc Cary lays down the sensitive accompaniments on the piano. Michael Bowie lays down hard bop bass and Jaz Sawyer is the drum wizard. What I like about them is that they aren't overly respectful of her; they learn from her but also challenge her every night.

She comes on to the stage with her trademark porkpie hat (echoes of Lester Young) and starts messing with the beat - a habit she shares with Billie Holiday. She works around the beat, slowing down or picking up the pace as her fancy takes her. She's never on the beat like these metronomic nouveau singers. If overdone it would be jarring, instead her artful manner excites your ear and keeps you alert. By the end she brings you back to where you expect and you're elated.

There's a grit to her voice these days. It's there even when she laughs at, or with, the overawed audience. If it was painful for some to contemplate Lady Day in her late period - with the damage of hard living showing in her voice, Abbey in autumn is a different affair. She has aged gracefully (like Sarah Vaughan) and the timbre of her voice suits the personal and almost political songs she writes. When she began writing the essential soundtrack to the civil rights movement in the 60s, she was pigeon-holed as a 'difficult' artist and her career suffered accordingly. These days though, her blues are comforting; we pretend all those issues have been resolved and are nostalgic for the good old days.

A diva at peace with her legacy, she sings the numerous standards that she wrote for herself and others, including Hey Lordy Mama which she gave to Nina Simone.
Hey Lordy Mama
I Heard You Wasn't Feeling' Good
They're Spreadin' Dirty Rumors
All Around The Neighborhood
They Say You're Mean And Evil
And Don't Know What To Do
That's The Reason That He's Gone
And Left You Black And Blue
Hey Yeah
Tell Me What You Gonna Do Now
Looking back, it is clear that she and other artists 'made' joints like the Blue Note and the Village Vanguard famous, not to mention all of these prestigious record labels they spawned. It is clear that the club owners and audiences owe her the reverence that we see. At the same time, places like the Blue Note were the proving grounds for jazz musicians - the places that made her the artist she is. And so there is this fondness flowing in both directions and a sense of playfulness and looseness with the band. But there is also a sense of electricity because she feels the need to be at her best at the Blue Note, she and the band have put on their game face.

2. The Let-down

After an hour though, the hinges start coming off.

First she forgets a lyric, looks around furtively and asks the pianist to remind her where she was. She recovers quickly though. For the next song, the band begins to build a furious groove. She begins to join in, a little tentative at first, but then says out loud: "That didn't work!" and calls for another song.

Two songs later she seems to be getting back into it but something isn't quite right, she isn't feeling it like the rest of us. And so:
"Thank you folks. I'm tired."
And she walks off the stage.

And so that was that: the temperamental diva syndrome again. Still, it was a good hour of solid if not great jazz by someone we love.

3. Redemption and Ecstasy

Or so we thought...

Ten minutes later, who should come up to the bar and sit next to us but Miss Abbey Lincoln. And that's when the vibing began as we drank and chatted for the next hour (cognac for her). With hindsight I think we were a great combination of drinking partners. I was the music lover who would pose obscure questions trying to show I had taste and knew the musicians' musicians. Tei was his usual argumentative self, prodding, teasing and flirting without commitment - crucially he made it clear upfront that Nina Simone was his thing so there was no question of adulation - something stars get too much of anyway.

Now let me tell you a few things about our close friend, Abbey Lincoln.
  • She was the 10th of 12 children.
  • Her father midwived the last 6 children at home
  • Her "real name is Anna Marie" (Woodridge). Abbey Lincoln is a stage name.
  • She was raised on a farm in Michigan. They "didn't have much growing up.. It was a hard life" (read: the family was dirt poor).
  • Her parents didn't get on towards the end. "Maybe they shouldn't have married"
And then there was the fierce discussion of marriage and human relationships.
  • "A man should have his own house."
  • "So should a woman."
  • She's not a big fan of marriage.
    "We don't need marriage."
  • She didn't think she'd take any more lovers.
    "I don't need the jealousy... Why should I be worrying about you? asking 'Where have you been? I want you to do this or do that'... Have your own place! You'll be better off."
And then there was the musical discussion:
  • I teased her that the last time I saw her, she was talking down Lena Horne. She bristled that Lena Horne was a shining star on the stage and that she would never speak ill of her. Shirley Horn on the other hand...
  • Nina Simone didn't look like a pin-up but was an outsized talent and good friend.
  • The Sarah Vaughan and Clifford Brown album was indeed a vocal milestone, like I alluded to earlier. However she thought Abbey Is Blue was better
    "And it had the same musicians!"
  • Clifford Brown died too young and Max Roach (her first husband) with whom Cliffie made legendary albums was completely devastated by the loss of his friend
  • Mal Waldron, Billie Holiday's accompanist, was one of the most sensitive men she knew. And she treasured the time they spent together and the musical lessons learned
  • Duke Ellington's encouragment was a source of strength for her.
  • Ben Webster played the most lyrical saxophone although she dug Pres more (Lester Young). Not to mention that Pres was the sharper dresser and wore the same hat as her
  • "I wasn't a peer of some of these guys [Duke, Ella, Sassy, Count Basie], but I knew them, played with them and carry their legacy... We made a joyful sound you know"
  • She identified a Stan Getz tune playing on the club sound system after barely 2 bars. "Stan Getz was a true friend. We were that close..." She later added, "We didn't screw you know... that was a good thing - a pure friendship"
We talked of the hard times for jazz artists and black artists in general and those who were forced to leave the US: Bud Powell, Sidney Bechet, Ben Webster, Dexter Gordon, Josephine Baker, Nina Simone.
"And Abbey Lincoln, you know.

It was hard. My patrons were French. They're the only ones who ask you 'What do you feel like doing this time, Abbey?'"
On aging, and seeing her friends pass away one after the other:
"I don't want to be the last one... It's getting lonely, you know."
It turns out that the reason she cut the set short was that it had been too cold. They hadn't turned the air conditionning off a half hour before she came on and so she was uncomfortable and couldn't give it her all.

We also saw the perils of celebrity: the star-struck fans coming up periodically, the guys wanting advice on how to get a record deal and clasping cameraphones for the obligatory photo, the tourist: "We came all the way from France to see you. We love you Abbey. Je t'aime".

The woman from Boston who wrote a song after hearing her in Boston three years ago and who insisted on singing her vapid tune for three unbearably long minutes. Not to mention the obsequious and sycophantic club owners next to her trying to pump her up so that she would return the next night. "You're the greatest. Everything you do is success and pleasure enough. You're so wonderful". I guess the reason she liked us was that we weren't yes-men stroking her ego.

She wanted to talk about how new artists were being led astray, especially this one, Alexis something-or-other, who had been around her house and whose manager was this dirty old man. It took me almost an hour to figure out that she meant Alicia Keys.
"Oh yes, Alicia Keys. With that old man! her manager or something... He's a dinosaur! Why's he making her sing about A Woman's Worth. What does she know about struggle? When has she ever experienced loss? She's so pretty you know. Beautiful even. That man is ruining her. Let her sing what she knows".
Alicia are you listening?

But then she concluded by leaning forward conspiratorially and said "I think she (Alicia) did her hair in braids after meeting me".

Anyway, we had our drinks and got 'drunk as a skunk' over the hour, having ourselves a good old time. As we left, she hugged both of us tightly and whispered:
"Go give it to them. Go kick 'em in the ass. You guys. Really... Be strong, and go give it to them... Kick 'em in the ass"
With pleasure, Abbey. With pleasure.

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Anonymous said...


Naunihal said...

Bravo. Thank you.