Down Here Below-- Ran Blake & Christine Correa

This CD represents volume one in a tribute to Abbey Lincoln by pianist Ran Blake and singer Christine Correa, done as a series of duets or solos. Blake first heard Lincoln's music while a student at Bard College, but was later exposed to Lincoln's vocal artistry in depth while working as a waiter at The Jazz Gallery in New York in 1961 during Lincoln's six-week engagement there with Max Roach, where they performed all the music from the Freedom Now Suite and Straight Ahead albums. When Correa came to the U.S. from India in 1979, it was Blake who introduced her to Lincoln's music. Correa observes in the notes to Down Here Below: "Freedom Now Suite and Straight Ahead were as powerful, shocking, and magificent as a bolt of lightening. Abbey's voice conveyed messages much stronger and [more] meaningful than the traditional boy/girl song texts. Her music continues to excite and inspire." Blake has been very discerning and particular in his choices of singers with whom to perform, from Jeanne Lee starting back in the late '50's to Dominique Eade (his longtime teaching colleague at the New England Conservatory of Music) and Correa in more recent decades. Down Here Below is Blake and Correa's third CD together. On the first, Round About (1994) they touched on "Freedom Day" and Lincoln's lyrics to "Blue Monk," while on Out of the Shadows (2010) they recorded two tunes associated with Lincoln, "When Malindy Sings" and "Mendacity." Now they devote an entire CD to a riveting exploration of tunes written by and/or performed by Lincoln, who passed away in 2010.

There are two versions each of Lincoln's "Down Here Below," R.B. Lynch's "Christmas Cheer," and the Max Roach/Oscar Brown Jr. "Freedom Day." The first "Down Here Below" begins with Correa's wordless chanting intro, which conveys the strength and tonal depth of Lincoln herself. Blake then solos at length, in reflective contrast and with an impressionistic classical feel, worrying certain tones, and only hinting at Lincoln's theme before playing it straight out. Correa then sings the lyrics in a conversational vein also reminiscent of Lincoln, with emotion ranging from restrained to unshackled, as Blake offers sparse yet enhancing accompaniment. Correa sings the second interpretation alone, with sensual reserve, coloring the words in heartfelt meaning, with only an occasional emotional outburst for added emphasis. This, and her "African Lady," are bravely confident, flawless, and moving solo masterpieces by this superb vocalist.

The duo's "Christmas Cheer" is a poignant treatment of the hopeful Christmas song, which has children most in mind for "a better world and peace on Earth." They turn it into a reverent prayer. Blake's solo piano take on the same tune features his unbeatable variations of dynamics and deliberate, always wise and appealing note choices--burnished lyricism with a dash of dissonance. Correa sounds very much like Lincoln on the first "Freedom Day," and it's Blake's spacy, portentous pianistics in his solo that give the track a distinctiveness it might otherwise have lacked. Correa pontificates while Blake deconstructs, except for the latter's more subdued comping. The second "Freedom Day" is less frenetic and relatively more conservative. Blake's sparse support of Correa's passionate, sometimes hoarsely delivered singing fits like a glove, and his concise improv utilizes space to great effect.

Correa's approach to "Little Niles" (Jon Hendricks/Randy Weston) involves rushed and/or abrupt phrasing, produced with a variety of inflections. Blake's solo briefly hints at the intended rhythm, as does his playing behind Correa's reprise, but this rubato interpretation is both fresh and completely different. "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" is given a serious reading with a sporadic can't-help-but-laugh aside. Blake's pensive solo is deeply laden with blues feeling and is hypnotically paced, and his underpinning of Correa is acutely in touch. Lincoln's "Bird Alone" is graced by Blake's clever intro that borrows from Neil Hefti's "Repetition" (think Bird Parker with Strings), while Correa evokes Nina Simone and Betty Carter as much as Lincoln here, with a rich, flexible tonal quality and clear diction. The pianist's solo is quietly compelling in its streamlined, considerate melodiousness, as it trickles down to unexpectedly close the track.

The aforementioned "African Lady" (Langston Hughes/Randy Weston) is delivered by Correa with dramatic fervor and throaty power, in a memorable salute to Lincoln's communicative ability. Blake toys with a note cluster from Monk's "'Round About Midnight" in his prologue to Lincoln and Julian Priester's "Retribution." Correa's exclamatory vocal is prodded by Blake's staccato commentary. Blake's improvisation runs the gamut of tonalities, dampened notes mixed with tinkling filigrees. The absorbing if brief reprise bows out unceremoniously. R.B. Lynch's "How I Hoped For Your Love" is a tantalizing love song, or more aptly, an end-of-love song. Blake initiates a bossa nova rhythm as he solos in, for him, a lyrically conventional manner that is yet more evidence of his wide command of jazz piano styles.

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Scott Albin