Abbey Lincoln after Two Decades

Almost 23 years ago I attended a concert at the Universal Jazz Coalition, then in what looked like an abandoned warehouse in SoHo. It was a tribute performance by Abbey Lincoln to Billie Holiday. At the time, I was really stunned by the performance. It came about as close as I could imagine to the emotional impact of Holiday at top form. Lincoln didn’t try to imitate Holiday, of course. She was in her late 50s then, and age was beginning to take a toll on her voice –- in the upper range her throat constricted and she had difficulty staying on pitch (using vibrato to help stabilize her). But quibbling is silly. When Abbey reaches for a high note and you’re afraid she won’t make it, your heart stops. And that’s part of the effect. Her voice was like a belt of Scotch, an acquired taste, but once you acquired it, you drink nothing else. And the huskiness reminded one of Holiday late in life—when the bruisings of a very hard life left their toll on the voice (and undoubtedly deeper).

It would be almost impossible for a competent jazz group and above average singer to turn the Billie Holiday stem-winders into a bad show. But Lincoln did more than that. She could turn the old Tin Pan Alley favorites into works of art. (Note I did not say “minor” works of art.)

I was able to verify this because I happen to have both volumes of Enja’s recordings of the concert. And I listened to them again after a long while.  And I’ll probably listen to them a couple of more times today.

There is a section right before the instrumental interlude before the intermission (the end of the first disc), where she sings “Lover Man,” “These Foolish Things,” and “I’ll Be Seeing You.” For these 15 minutes she elevates 20th Century, bourgeois, romantic love into an experience worthy of the highest artistic probing. At the risk of sounding like a sentimentalist, if you can listen to that stretch without misting up, you must be either a Gen-Xer or a hedge fund manager.

Musicologists of our age, hundreds of years from now, will have the opposite problem of contemporary musicologists studying, for example, the Italian Renaissance. We have limited material, and the trick is to figure out why it was considered good then, and why it should endure now. Now we have unlimited amounts of sound; in the future they will have to cull from the mounds of dross what should endure. I hope somebody has these Enja discs then, and they have the means to play them. I have no idea what they will think of them. Perhaps they will think that we were frivolous fools, obsessed with “love” and ignored all the problems of hunger, ignorance, pestilence. Or perhaps they will think we had no taste. They will have to dissect the elements which we take for granted. And they will never be “in the moment,” as they say. And they might not even find it important music. But if you spend an hour and a half now listening to it, I promise you won’t be sorry.

After listening to the music, I thought I’d look up what happened to the sidemen. Harold Vick, the tenor saxophonist who provides compelling obbligato and dream-like solos in the vocal breaks, I had known of for a long while, but had never been a particular student of. I now am shocked to find he died a week after the concert. The soulfulness of that tenor now has added depth. Vick came from the same town in North Carolina that Monk came from. He studied with his uncle Prince Robinson (an early tenor, but a fixture on some of my favorite big bands). Vick became a hard bopper, but retained that “thick” tenor sound of R&B players (he played with such groups during college at Howard), which is undoubtedly how he became associated with the Blue Note label.

The pianist James Weidman, who played several well constructed solos on the Lincoln album, particularly on Waldron’s “Soul Eyes,” I’m happy to find is still performing, mostly as a sideman. He had been with Lincoln from the early 80s to the early 90s, and reunited with her in the 2002 Jazz at Lincoln Center Abbey Lincoln “Anthology.” Drummer Mark Johnson stayed with her for a little bit longer, and went on to play with Geri Allen, and others including Wallace Roney (where he played on Tony Williams’ drum kit).

The strangest course was followed by bassist Tarik Shah. Shah evidently pursued martial arts (considering himself something of a ninja), while continuing to perform bass. In May 2005, Shah was arrested in New York in a sting to uncover Al Qaeda sympathizers. Originally there was some supporters claiming that this was hysterical overreaction by counter-terrorism police. But there were apparently tapes capturing him saying some really ugly things.

It seems that Shah’s father had been a follower of Malcolm X, and Shah himself became a Muslim as an adult. Perhaps this was a natural progression for a kid who listened to Cannonball Adderley. And perhaps it led to dalliances with radical Muslims. Or perhaps he was merely a troubled braggart goaded by overly “enthusiastic” agents. It will take some time before we will be able to evaluate all the ugliness of “law enforcement” of the Bush-Ashcroft-Gonzalez-Chertoff era. There are articles on the Web describing some of the evidence against Shah; it’s all too dreary for me to review now. Or even to link to.

But I find it difficult to understand, how (if indeed it’s true) the bassist at the Jazz Coalition, who performed so strongly on “God Bless the Child” and “Don’t Explain” and was so sensitive on Lincoln’s torch song renditions, could have ended up claiming that he could smile and then strangle a little girl. Perhaps it’s because I’m a decadent “idealist.” Perhaps art and morality have no correlation.

All I’ve found out is that nearly 20 years to the date of the Abbey Lincoln performance Shah was sentenced to 15 years in prison for “terrorism.”

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  1. September 12th, 2010

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