Jazz singer-songwriter Abbey Lincoln battles back from illness.
Wed Aug 15 2007
Photo: Jean-Marc Lubrano
Abbey Lincoln is laughing. Her lightheartedness seems a tad unusual, given that right now the 77-year-old singer-composer is recalling the period in the ’60s when both her Afrocentric fashion sense and willingness to address social issues incited criticism from the mainstream. “You know how it is sometimes,” she says while chortling. “People feel the need to put you in your place.” At that time, Lincoln’s nascent civil-rights image—reinforced by the impassioned wordless shouting she contributed to then-husband Max Roach’s classic 1960 album, We Insist: The Freedom Now Suite—had surprised many who’d followed her career since she received raves for a sultry performance in the 1956 film The Girl Can’t Help It. Overnight, Lincoln had become “a professional Negro,” to quote one particularly harsh characterization. “There was another joke from that time,” she adds, the sting of those events long behind her. “People used to say, ‘All right, y’all, let’s go downtown and hear Abbey scream.’ ”
Today, Lincoln (who was born Anna Marie Wooldridge in Chicago) exhibits the blithe spirit of a survivor. She has a fine new album, Abbey Sings Abbey (Verve), and is set to headline both afternoons of this month’s annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival, a surprise after the harrowing events that befell her on March 3. Lincoln was rushed to St. Luke’s Hospital near her home on the Upper West Side that night, not breathing and suffering heart failure. “I’m fine, though,” she says reassuringly, her speaking voice retaining the salty crackle that easily identifies her as the truest heir to Billie Holiday. “There were no warning signs, so I consider myself lucky.” The incident resulted in triple bypass surgery and replacement of her aortic valve. “Sure, I could have died, but we’re all going to—whether we want to face it or not. My parents, who were very strong and beautiful people—I’m the 10th of 12 children—taught me to accept things like that. And I’m reminded every day that I wasn’t punished here on earth.”
That poetic matter-of-factness has characterized Lincoln’s work ever since she began writing lyrics back in the late ’50s. But it’s safe to say that her songwriting entered its current philosophically trenchant, earth-mother phase around the time she came to the attention of Polygram France (the French arm of Verve’s parent company) in 1989. Abbey Sings Abbey is the summation of her fruitful relationship with producer and label honcho Jean-Philippe Allard, reimagining some of the best songs from the 17-year stretch that produced gorgeous albums such as The World Is Falling Down (1990), the stunning Stan Getz swan song–collaboration You Gotta Pay the Band (1991), A Turtle’s Dream (1995) and Wholly Earth (1998). The new disc is Lincoln’s first full album dedicated solely to her own material, and Allard’s ideas seem to point toward a twangy, rustic future, even though the disc opens with “Blue Monk,” featuring the lyrics Lincoln added to the famed Thelonious Monk composition back in 1962. (“Monk dropped by that session,” she remembers, “and whispered to me not to be ‘too perfect.’ ”) In a sort of reverse homage to another icon, Bob Dylan (Lincoln remade his “Mr. Tambourine Man” with a piano trio in 1996), Allard and engineer Jay Newland had the disc’s pieces reworked to spotlight Delta-bred guitars and accordion, all starring former Dylan sideman Larry Campbell.
Lincoln has decided to forgo guitars for the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival appearances, which will function as her postoperation performance debuts. “I’m rested, but I’m still a little worried about the strength of my voice, having not used it for a while,” she confesses. “But then, I’ll have Cedar Walton, a fantastic musician and accompanist, with me. I didn’t know Charlie Parker personally,” she adds, musing on the festival’s namesake. “Just through Roach, who of course played drums with him. So I’m pretty sure we’re going to open the show with something associated with Duke Ellington—now, Duke I actually knew.” She pauses. “I’ve been fortunate enough to meet an awful lot of fabulous people.”
Abbey Sings Abbey is out now. Lincoln plays the Charlie Parker Jazz Festival at Marcus Garvey Park Aug 25 and at Tompkins Square Park Aug 26.