Abbey Lincoln passed away yesterday. Although it is always impossible for me to rank a favorite singer to be second-to-none, I can almost do this in Ms. Lincoln’s case. Her artistry as songwriter and singer was focused on moving the Great Black Music forward. At the same time, she is rightfully the most gripping and deepest of the heirs to Billie Holiday’s swinging deep-soul music.
Abbey has made a lot of superb records over her fifty+ year career. In a more wide-awake cultural circumstance she would be known by many many more as one of the great American singers. Start with You Gotta Pay the Band (1991, with Stan Getz,) and work in both directions.
I first heard Abbey Lincoln on Max Roach’s 1962 masterpiece, It’s Time. She caps the record with her song Lonesome Lover. I tracked down the few of her records one could acquire at the time, around 1978. I did happen upon scratchy copies of her classic record for Riverside, That’s Him, and her debut record. The trajectory of my tastes and enthusiasms in jazz singing begin with Lincoln and the singer she is related most to, Billie Holiday.
Beginning in 1980, she began to record more regularly, and, eventually I tracked down all of her records–because I wanted to hear every recorded note. She’s a cornerstone figure for me, and, when people speak of ‘spiritual jazz,’ she and Alice Coltrane are twin highest goddesses.
Sometime around 1984, me and some friends got in a car in the dead of a Vermont winter to make the trek to The Rising Sun in Montreal to pay hommage to, and hear, Ms. Lincoln. It was the kind of road trip where a half hour into it, trying to stay on Route 7, we all thought ‘we must be a bit crazy to be driving in this nasty weather.’ Then the weather turned ugly.
Making our way very carefully north, we got to the Rising Sun, made our way up the stairs and turned into the long rectangle of the club. Hardly anybody was there. This changed in a minor way, for another group had hit the bottom of the stairs. In any case, we turned toward the small stage and saw a set up for Abbey’s backup trio and a bunch of empty tables. We made our way to the front most table just a few minutes before the announced starting time for the concert. The party behind us grabbed a front table.
Then, Doudou Boicel, the renowned Montreal jazz maven and owner of the club, announced the main attraction. The trio, led by pianist Phillip Wright, played several songs. Then Wright introduced Abbey.
Unaffected by the miniscule turnout, she launched into a glorious opening set. Here’s the kicker: ten feet away, the singer not only beguiled, she also made laser-like eye contact with each of us. I have never before or since, listening to a singer, felt the direct physical connection Abbey created on this night, as she brought many moments of song in through the so-called window to the soul. Needless to say there was no problem hanging around for the slightly more populated second set. She sustained this direct connection throughout the evening. This evening’s experience remains for me one of the high points of being a fan of the human voice.
NPR’s Jazz Profiles section has a series of terrific interviews with Lincoln and her colleagues.