With the release of her mesmerizing new album, The World Is Falling Down, Abbey Lincoln, now 60 years old, may finally earn recognition as the great singer she is — possibly the most commanding jazz vocalist now at work.
True jazz singing, where the vocalist can be as emotive if not quite as free as an instrumentalist, flourished in the decades when pop songs were perfect vehicles for improvisation. With rock, all that changed: Jazz grew simultaneously freer and more insular, and jazz singers often found themselves stranded without suitable material. Lincoln began writing songs of her own in the 1950s, when she worked with the greatest jazz instrumentalists, and when most other singers were content with recycling Golden Age evergreens.
By the early ’60s, the sublime swing of Ella Fitzgerald and the virtuoso ornamentation of Sarah Vaughan didn’t always seem tough enough to suit the turmoil of the Civil Rights era. Lincoln’s plain and plangent voice did, and so did her concern with racial politics and black history. That concern led to We Insist! (Freedom Now Suite), a 1960 collaboration with drummer Max Roach, who was then her husband. Her 1959 album, Abbey Is Blue, has just been reissued, affirming how far ahead of her time she was in choosing an imaginative repertoire: While other female singers stuck to man-hungry laments from the previous decade, she championed — among much else — songs by the subsequently famous folk-protest performer Oscar Brown Jr.
During those same years, she began working as an actress, launching a movie career — with a role in the 1957 rock parody The Girl Can’t Help It — that peaked with Michael Roemer’s landmark 1964 film about blacks, Nothing But a Man, and her 1968 starring role as a maid opposite Sidney Poitier in For Love of Ivy. (After a long absence from the screen she appeared this year as Denzel Washington’s mother in Spike Lee’s Mo’ Better Blues.) Since the ’60s she had kept a low profile as a singer as well, rarely appearing at all. When she returned in the ’70s she displayed an uncanny knack for finding the best young musicians — saxophonist Steve Coleman, for one.
Fittingly, the highlight of her new record is a Lincoln original, probably the best she’s ever written. ”The World Is Falling Down” is a song with a secular gospel feel. Paced over a decisive backbeat, it has a deep blues undercurrent, a churchlike power — appropriate because it’s about defying the ravages of time. Yet it’s also a glittering jazz performance, with radiant solos by trumpeter Clark Terry (surprisingly laconic and utterly free of his trademark jocular licks) and influential alto saxophonist Jackie McLean, who in the unaccustomed role of accompanist turns in the best supporting performance of the year. His solo on this track is a flourish of gorgeous melody; when Terry briefly returns on trumpet, he avows the solo’s songfulness by following with a quote from Franz Schubert — four lyrical bars of the Unfinished Symphony.
Lincoln’s proud yet plaintive improvisational style is in the tradition of Billie Holiday. She doesn’t use many notes (though her range is greater than Holiday’s — she can hit ravishing high notes on ballads), but she chooses them with great care, savoring long open vowels and using blues shadings with telling subtlety. Unlike the brilliant flights of fancy associated with Fitzgerald, the Holiday manner — fewer notes, narrower range — was forged in the need to make less mean more. It’s never facile. From Holiday, Lincoln inherited a firm sense of drama and proportion, as well as a regard for the meaning of the lyrics she chooses to sing. Her ”I Got Thunder,” for example, is a pealing ode of self-affirmation, dressed up with tempo changes, a catchy chorus, and another great McLean solo. She also wrote words to Thad Jones’ ”Summery,” producing a robust lament she calls ”When Love Was You and Me,” and collaborated with the great bassist Charlie Haden (who, with drummer Billy Higgins, keeps the rhythm section unerringly graceful) on ”First Song.”
Most surprisingly, Lincoln does the impossible with ”How High the Moon,” one of the most frequently played songs ever: She makes it fresh again. The Morgan Lewis-Nancy Hamilton classic was originally a little-noticed Broadway show tune, but in the mid-’40s it became the anthem of the bebop era when Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Nat Cole, and other musicians recorded countless variations on it; following suit, the team of Les Paul and Mary Ford popularized the song and scored a monster hit in 1951. The fact that Lincoln sings it in French (as well as English) and in waltz time and revives the rarely heard verse accounts less for the distinctness of her version than her attention to the tune’s cresting lyricism. Her approach has an aching purity that makes you hunger for alluring improvisations: Once again, Terry and McLean deliver. When the album’s finished, you know you’ve been someplace, and you want to play the album over to get there again. A+