One of the things I admire most about the jazz community is the zeal with which it embraces its elders. Unlike the pop, TV and film industries where 30 might as well be 90, the jazz world maintains a healthy suspicion of youthful genius while according veterans their due. Not in that trumped-up Oscar or Emmy or Grammy night way (the "troop 'em out for a lifetime achievement award then put 'em back in mothballs" routine), but with genuine, club-filling, album-buying interest in what they're up to. Consider Abbey Lincoln, still going strong and sounding great at 73.
If there's any doubt in your mind that Lincoln is the finest female jazz singer on the planet, simply absorb the sheer majesty of the "Skylark" that opens her umpteenth studio session, It's Me (Verve). Then listen to the way she illuminates the melancholy yearning of "Yellow Bird" and hear how she transforms a throwaway trifle like "Runnin' Wild" into four minutes of feisty liberation. As always, though, Lincoln shines brightest with her own compositions. The soft, tender "Love Is Made," with Lincoln wrapped in the velvety warmth of Kenny Barron's piano and Julien Lourau's tenor sax, is wonderfully offset by the chest-thumping penance of the nearer-my-God-to-thee title track. "Can You Dig It" finds Lincoln in a particularly playful mood, bubbling over with joie de vivre as she asks, "Is 'to be or not to be' really a question?" The real prize here, though, is the gorgeously introspective "They Call It Jazz" in which the doyenne of vocal expressionism shapes a semi-autobiographical salute to the "orphan child" that has sustained her life's work and fueled her creative passion.