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Dave Brubeck Quartet and Bill Smith at the Earshot Jazz Festival

Jazz at Lincoln Center paid tribute to vocalist Abbey Lincoln by devoting three consecutive nights at Alice Tully Hall to the songs of the 71-year-old reigning jazz diva. For the Saturday-night, March 9 finale, the former Anna Marie Woolridge, looking elegant and rail-thin in a long black dress, fronted an eight-piece group consisting of pianist Marc Cary, bassist John Ormond, drummer Jaz Sawyer, percussionist Kahlil Kwame Bell and alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, plus a cellist and two female backup singers.

Despite the best efforts of Lincoln’s regular accompanist, Cary, the band never really jelled. Perhaps the acoustics of Alice Tully Hall-designed for European classical music, not jazz-make it difficult for jazz players to hear and interact with each other as they would ordinarily in a club setting. It sometimes sounded as if piano, bass and drums were feeling the beat in three slightly different places. Perhaps more rehearsal time was all that was needed. In any case, Lincoln did an excellent job of keeping the audience focused on her own center-stage performance, with the emphasis on her highly personal and creative approach to lyrics.

Several of the songs that Lincoln performed came from her acclaimed 1998 Verve CD Wholly Earth (on which Cary and Ormond played) including “Message to a Baby,” “Caged Bird,” “Learning How to Listen,” the Earth-affirming title song and “Another World,” an ode to extraterrestrial life based on the arpeggio used in the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Aided by her backup singers, Stacie Precia and Bemshi Shearer, Lincoln turned in a welcome rendition of “Blues for Mama,” a song she co-wrote with Nina Simone in the ’60s. Lincoln is not known as a great improviser; rather she marries interesting lyrics to serviceable melodies that are rooted in bop harmony. She has certain signature licks that are used in more than one song, and these over the years have helped to define the uniqueness of her overall sound.

Alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, one of the leading lights of the jazz scene of the past 15 years, shambled onstage in jeans and sneakers-don’t bother dressing up, Steve, it’s only Lincoln Center-soloed on most songs, lending his cerebral, Bird-influenced lines to the proceedings. Pianist Cary also had a couple of masterful solos, in which he demonstrated his impressive technique and ability to shade dynamics. But the most significant musical contribution of the night came in the form of tap-dancing genius Savion Glover’s 10-minute workout on “Who Used to Dance.” Incredibly well limned rhythmically and visually, Glover’s impromptu performance encapsulated the full range of human aspiration and emotion, while serving up entertainment of the purest, most physical kind. Two love songs, “Circle of Love” and “Should’ve Been,” Lincoln performed as cordial duets with singer Freddy Cole, another clear audience favorite.

Lincoln’s voice has retained its appealingly simple and unadorned tone, although the old hang-ups are still there as well, including occasional pitch issues and some peak high notes that are not so much sung as yelled through the nose. Nevertheless, it is hard to criticize the type of consummate professional who can withstand multiple shaky intros and endings, forgetting the occasional lyric and fronting an under-rehearsed band on the stage of one of the world’s great concert halls and still keep the whole audience firmly in her corner right up to the standing ovation at the end.

Bravo, Abbey, and congratulations on a great career: It ain’t over yet.

Originally Published