Thursday, August 19, 2010

THE GREAT ABBEY LINCOLN (August 6, 1930 – August 14, 2010)

She took her name from Westminster Abbey and Abraham Lincoln.

She gave the world Abbey Lincoln. I'm giving you "Throw It Away," and you can toss it or dig deeper into the songs and albums of an artist who truly deserves the word "great" in front of her name.

I base this on her music, though her life story of activism and integrity is one of greatness as well. But when you write the way Abbey Lincoln did, and sing the way she sang, you don't need a back story to be impressive. I mean, does it matter that much if Abbey Lincoln was raised Anna Wooldridge in Michigan, or Bob Dylan was raised Robert Zimmerman in Minnesota?

Just in case you don't feel like searching around for a bio or obit, here's a paragraph about Abbey, who died in NYC a few days ago (August 6, 1930 – August 14, 2010). With the help of her manager, the lyricist Bob Russell, Abbey first popped eyes with a number in Jayne Mansfield's "The Girl Can't Help It," and a sizzling solo disc, "Affair: Story of a Girl in Love," which had the requisite sexy album cover. Pretty quickly she walked away from being the black Julie London to tackling civil rights issues on tougher jazz releases ("We Insist!" with Max Roach). She also co-starred in Sidney Poitier movies, and did not record much in the 70's ("People in Me") or 80's ("Painted Lady"). She re-established herself as a formidable singer in jazz clubs and in 1990 made her comeback with "The World Is Falling Down," taking her place as a poetic, dignified, earthy, worldly singer of songs that were a fusion of be-bop, traditional jazz, and even Dylan. Jazz albums don't sell much and uncompromising artists such as Abbey Lincoln tend to dwell in nightclubs rather than get high profile TV variety or talk show spots. So she did what she did till her heart literally gave out. She underwent open-heart surgery in 2007.

In some ways Abbey Lincoln commanded respect for the wrong reasons. It's all too easy to be intimidated by her sheer survival, the way Alberta Hunter was lionized in old age. It's too easy to use that white writer's brand of reverse racism and admire her only because she stood up for civil rights, or sang the kind of jazz that you "need to be black to truly understand." Well, it's all in the music. First time I heard "Throw It Away," I was blown away. Maybe you will be, too. The song is mysteriously poetic, bitterly romantic and painfully optimistic.

Abbey's music here has a touch of pop-mystical (Nat "King" Cole's "Nature Boy" comes to mind) while the vocals have a touch of Billie Holiday. In the lyrics, Abbey taps soul truth ("You can never lose a thing if it belongs to you") so God bless the child that's got his own. There's also a very Dylanesque sense of contradiction, with "throw it away" linked to giving, while inner-rhyme draws the listener in deeper and imagery plays on perspective ("a hand to help us stand.") There's humility here ("I think about the life I live, a figure made of clay") and the tragic magic of answers only coming when you are ready to call for them ("…when I'm in a certain mood, I search the halls and nooks. One night I found these magic words in a magic book…") The name of the magic book, of course, Abbey does not reveal. Dylan wouldn't do that, either.

The version of "Throw it Away" below is the slower one (5:45) with dark strings and ghostly percussion, to be found on "A Turtle's Dream." There's also a slightly quicker (5:17) Astor Piazzolla-styled orchestration on "Abbey Sings Abbey," which has a younger, stronger vocal which some might find more positive than the older-but-wiser take. "Throw it away" is not a respectful thing to do to music, but on this occasion, giving a song in memory of a great artist seems the right thing to do.

throw it away - ABBEY LINCOLN

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