"[Abbey Lincoln] has become our greatest living jazz singer, and this is her crowning achievement." - Francis Davis on Abbey Sings Abbey.
"Over the years, longing to see, into the night, what is to be Never knowing what's really ahead." -Abbey Lincoln from her song "What Will Tomorrow Bring"
"I don't know what's before us," says jazz vocalist extraordinaire Abbey Lincoln when reflecting on her sumptuous, and at times poignant new Verve CD Over the Years. "No one knows. It's sobering, but we're still all-powerful human beings. If you can keep hope, you can live on. And there's the music-it always leaves footprints in the sand."
Lincoln is one of the last great jazz singers, as well as one of the music's most gifted songwriters. Since signing with Verve in 1989, she has enjoyed a tremendous creative flowering as a poet, songwriter, painter, actress, and singer. There's no other jazz vocalist today who commands her authority of expression. On Over the Years, her eighth recording for Verve, she delivers ten new songs-including five that she penned-that are luminous with meaning, musicality, and humanity.
Over the Years is a reflective disc, with equal parts melancholy, joy, and insight. Yet it is also an uplifting album, one that's full of compassion and ultimately inspiring. At the core of the outing is Lincoln's artistry-the power of her songwriting and the elegance, simplicity, and heartfelt nature of her vocals.
Produced by Jean-Philippe Allard and Daniel Richard, Over the Years features Lincoln's working band-pianist Brandon McCune, bassist John Ormond, and drummer Jaz Sawyer-along with cameo appearances by vocalist Kendra Shank (who also plays the guitar on the traditional tune "Blackberry Blossoms") and cellist Jennifer Vincent. Additional special guests include tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano on six tracks and trumpeter Jerry Gonzalez on two. "They were wonderful," Lincoln says. "They colored the songs, seasoned them."
As with all of her performances-live and recorded-wells of deep emotion and founts of mature wisdom characterize Lincoln's music. She'll have it no other way. "How can you have a career and never say anything? To experience it all and not say a word?" she asks. "You're supposed to stand up and speak your mind in the music. Some people like to hear some reality. I'm not trying to save or fix the world. I'm just singing about my experiences. My songs are observations."
Lincoln has made a career out of pursuing her art with integrity and raising the bar on matters of the heart. Born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Chicago in 1930, she was the tenth of 12 children. She began singing at a young age and won an amateur contest at 19. Her family life as a youngster continues to be an inspiration. "I'm glad I come from a people," says Lincoln: "My mother was a wise woman who practiced free thought. She had a high estimation of herself as a human being." She continues, "My father was a great man. He built the house we lived in. He midwifed the last six children. He could have been a singer, but he didn't try for a career. He chose to be a family man."
Lincoln made her recording debut in 1955 (Abbey Lincoln's Affair. A Story of a Girl in Love on the Liberty imprint) and went on to make several important albums of her own for the Riverside and Candid labels. She also collaborated on other dates (most notably, 1960's landmark jazz civil rights recording, We Insist! Freedom Now Suite, composed by Max Roach with lyrics by Oscar Brown, Jr.).
Lincoln also enjoyed a film career in the '60s (including 1964's Nothing But a Man and 1966's For the Love of Ivy, the latter co-starring Sidney Poitier), and it came as quite a surprise to her when in the early '70s she began writing her own songs. Since then she has consistently crafted new tunes for her albums. "I write when I'm inspired," she explains. "I don't just sit around waiting to write-or sing or paint for that matter. I wait. If I hear something, I'll write it down or commit it to memory one way or another."
In talking about her own songs on Over the Years, Lincoln opens a window on their meaning. In regards to the gorgeous, hopeful "What Will Tomorrow Bring," which features Lovano's tenor musings, she relates a story about a little girl falling out of her stroller because she wasn't properly secured. "The child got to her feet angry and hollering at her keeper," she says. "The people are distraught and full of trouble."
Lincoln penned the playful, bluesy joyride "I Could Sing It for a Song" as a personal note to one of jazz's great pianists. "I wrote this for [Thelonious] Monk, for his style," she explains, then recites a few lines from the tune: "In a world of trouble, lotta take and give/Now and then a lesson/There will be a test/Hoping when the wagon comes/I'll be at my best." She adds, "This is one of my favorites songs on the album."
"Blackberry Blossoms"-a traditional tune that Lincoln supplied with new words-opens with a jaunty instrumental hoedown as Shank's guitar is greeted by Lovano's tenor sax. It's a country jig that develops into a jazz flurry. "Kendra is a wonderful singer who brought this song to me. I put it in another rhythm and tempo, then wrote a lyric about the children." As for the country music flavor, Lincoln laughs and says, "It's all country. What they call jazz is just country-it's the people and the way they feel about life."
The haunting ballad "A Heart Is Not a Toy" is about people whose lives have been destroyed by love. "There's nothing cute about that," says Lincoln. "It's disillusionment in the name of love." The tender and moving love song "I'm Not Supposed to Know" features Lovano gently blowing grace notes and Gonzalez contributing muted trumpet lines.
Other tunes on the CD include a profound and knowing rendition of Leonard Bernstein's "Lucky to Be Me" (one of Lincoln's live show highlights), the warm and jazzy Armando Mazanero number "Somos Novos" ("We Are Lovers," sung here in Spanish), and the stunning show-stopper "Tender As a Rose," written by Lincoln's one-time vocal coach Phil Moore and performed a cappella. The upbeat, sweeping, circular-in-motion "Windmills of Your Mind," written by Michel Legrand (music) and Marilyn and Alan Bergman (lyrics) features a particularly exuberant Lovano.
Lincoln imbues the warm, nostalgic opening track, "When the Lights Go on Again" with new meaning. The song-a hit during World War II when it forecast the joys of war's end-sums up the spirit of Over the Years. In Lincoln's rendition, the song transcends its era to become a metaphor for the wars-both literal and figurative-which perpetuate a universal longing for peace and light.
With the authority of her years and her musical and human understanding, Abbey Lincoln sheds light on every song she sings. Over the Years is the consummation to date of her life's mastery of word, music, and performance. It's at once a thought-provoking and a life-affirming State of the Soul address.