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The Gig: Andy Bey

A musician's singer, and more

Andy Bey

One false binary implicitly applied to jazz singers is the distinction between songbirds and hawks. The first camp, under the given rubric, genuflects to the wholesale integrity of a tune; the second regards most material as a starting point. Bat around this ball of yarn for a while and it starts to unravel, of course, even if certain reputations reside at one or another end of the scale. Lena Horne? Pure songbird. Betty Carter? Total hawk. You could make a parlor game out of this taxonomy, not that I’d recommend it. For one thing, it would make no accommodation for one of this year’s best albums, The World According to Andy Bey (HighNote).

Bey, 74, is a jazz singer of magical expressivity, possessed of a natural baritone that stretches into a steely, barking tenor and beyond, toward something like a male head voice, which I’ve taken to calling his mezzo-falsetto. That extraordinary range is just one facet of Bey’s voice, which the critic Gary Giddins once pegged in passing as “dark and grudging and mysterious.” Throughout his late-career renaissance-a period that began in 1996 with the gemlike piano-and-vocal solo album Ballads, Blues and Bey (Evidence)-he has been known as a sterling interpreter of American popular song. (Indeed, prior to this year, his most recent studio album bore the title American Song, as if to plant a flag.) But upholding Bey the songbird means ignoring his other gifts as a bebop-honed self-accompanist, a nearly cosmically searching lyricist and a melodic improviser in the same realm (if not the same rank) as his childhood acquaintance Sarah Vaughan.

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