BOOKS AND ARTS SEPTEMBER 10, 2007
Abbey Sings Abbey
Love Is What Stays
Near the end of 1956, two young jazz singers made their first albums: Abbey Lincoln's Affair … A Story of a Girl in Love, released by Liberty Records, a quality-conscious shoestring operation, and Meet Mark Murphy, issued by Decca, then a major jazz-pop label. Lincoln was twenty-six and black and a woman, Murphy twenty-four and white and a man, and both had talent and looks. For half a century, they followed separate and circuitous but roughly parallel career paths. Both started out singing in traditional modes, soon developed quirky original styles, indulged their inclinations to extremes, pushed the tolerance of the general public, moved out of Manhattan (Lincoln to California, Murphy to Europe), and bought time by doing some acting and teaching; and then both returned to the New York jazz scene and made a great deal of mature, sophisticated music.
Now in their seventies, Lincoln and Murphy have both survived bouts of grave illness and this year released new CDs on the Verve label: Lincoln's Abbey Sings Abbey and Murphy's Love Is What Stays. Both of the albums are works about aging--or more precisely, about having grown old and looked death in the face; and they stand as companionable testaments to jazz's capacity to accommodate ideas all too rare in mainstream music, primary among them the notion that the end of life is a part of life worth the attention, the respect, and even the affection of serious artists and their audiences.
It is startling to find singers taking up the themes of old age and mortality, and even more surprising to find the artists treating these subjects honestly and intelligently, with no pretense of enduring youth nor cheap sentiment--especially at this time of year, the season of glossy, overdone, feel-good summer concert tours and music festivals. To watch Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend parading under the good-because-it's-bad name of the once young and scary Who, or Mick Jagger prancing about with his beknighted sixty-four-year-old tongue stuck out, is to submit to a spectacular delusion of the pop-music world, wherein old age exists not as a natural phase in the cycle of life and death, but as a state of freakish artificial youth generated to sustain the feedback loop of narcissism spinning from the stage through the stands and back again.
Pop culture abhors the old as a matter of good business. After all, as we age we do tend to grow set in our ways of thinking and feeling--and therefore in our ways of buying. We are not great consumers anymore, and one reason we buy less is that we do less. (I should probably note here, in full mortal disclosure, that my own age is fifty-two.) The old may still have active lives, as the commercials never fail to remind us; but with the years, more and more of the activity becomes of the mind. This fact may serve more than anything else to alienate the old from the rest of America. To spend more time thinking than doing is one of the few things held in greater suspicion than to spend time not spending. Thus Abbey Sings Abbey and Love Is What Stays, both of which are sedate and pensive works, speak so eloquently in the milieu of age that they sound radical--more genuinely radical, certainly, than the pseudo-adolescent posturing of Daltrey and Townshend.
Jazz has long been a music hospitable to aging, because it requires technical mastery of complex forms, it prizes individuality of expression, and it calls upon musicians to come to the bandstand with ideas worth expressing. Experience helps considerably in all these challenges--experience in living as much as in playing or singing. Several years ago I discussed some of these issues with Lena Horne, when she was recording her first album in more than a decade--her own statement on aging and mortality, which she did in the form of a musical message to departed loved ones, titled We'll Be Together Again. I asked her why she had let herself lie fallow for so long, and why she decided to dig back into work in her late seventies. "I was going through the motions. I thought that being a nightclub singer was a dumb thing to be," she said of the period when she had last performed and chose to hang up her sequins. And what happened during her years of self-imposed exile on Manhattan's Upper East Side? "I took long walks around the park, and I stayed at home by myself and read books," she said. "I learned how dumb I really was. Now, that's what I call getting smart."
Abbey Lincoln, who has acknowledged Horne as an important influence, has similarly cited uncertainty as a strength acquired late in her career. After a hypnotic, languorous performance at the Blue Note in New York a few years ago, she spent a bit of time with fans and reporters outside her dressing room, and someone asked her what she thought the young Abbey Lincoln would have made of the woman who had just performed. Lincoln said her youthful self "wouldn't understand her." Beaming, she added, "I don't understand her." Indeed, a kind of cryptic wisdom, an odd quality of mature naiveté, has given much of Lincoln's late-life music its unusual power.
The young Abbey Lincoln had been doing something more conventional, though doing it well, and the conventions of her time and place were sufficiently daunting. While the liturgy of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame teaches us that old-fashioned popular music was so atrocious in the mid-1950s that Elvis had to come forth for pop's salvation, 1956 and 1957--the years of Presley's sensational arrival and the explosion of rock and roll--were in fact a time of extraordinary achievement in Tin Pan Alley-style vocal music. Frank Sinatra, at the peak of his interpretive powers, released Songs for Swingin' Lovers and Close to You and More, contrasting gems of romantic bravura and sweet intimacy. Ella Fitzgerald began recording her now legendary Songbook series of records (just now being re-issued) devoted to the canonical popular songwriters, releasing three double-album sets covering the works of Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, and Duke Ellington within two years, with time left for an album's worth of duets with Louis Armstrong. Billie Holiday gave her valedictory performance at Carnegie Hall, accompanied by a narrator reading excerpts from her (largely ghostwritten) memoir, Lady Sings the Blues. Lambert, Hendricks and Ross, the dazzling exemplars of jazz "vocalese," recorded their debut LP, Sing a Song of Basie. And singers such as Sarah Vaughan, Johnny Hartman, Carmen McRae, and Kay Starr were all doing some of the best work of their lives. The truth is, jazz-oriented popular music reached a creative peak at the time of rock's emergence. Adult pop had become an art music, better suited to listening and contemplation than to dancing and necking, a fact that no doubt contributed to its abandonment by teenagers. Rock and rollers, the victors in the end, have written the other side's triumphs out of history.
Such was the musical environment that Abbey Lincoln and Mark Murphy dared to enter fifty-one years ago, and their first albums showed their eagerness to prove themselves, if not to distinguish themselves, by the prevailing standards. Abbey Lincoln's Affair and its follow-up, That's Him, are of a piece: aggressive efforts to exploit Lincoln's beauty by packaging her as a doe-eyed, man-hungry sexpot. The jacket of the first album showed Lincoln lying on her back, waiting, laid out as if she were hanging upside down, and the songs on both albums were compatible messages of submission or paeans to male gratification: "Warm Valley" (a lyric version of the programmatic instrumental that Duke Ellington composed to suggest a woman's vagina), "When a Woman Loves a Man" (in which the singer is a fool in the "one-sided game" of romance), and other pieces such as "I Must Have That Man," "Strong Man," and "Don't Explain." Lincoln played the role, but she could not pull it off. There was too much bite and muscle in her singing for her to sound persuasively compliant and dim.
Like Murphy in his debut recordings and countless other musicians in their early work, Lincoln sounded more like her role models--here Billie Holiday, there Lena Horne or Dinah Washington--than herself. For Murphy, the main influence was Sinatra, followed by Nat Cole and Sammy Davis Jr. Like many young singers, too, both Lincoln and Murphy fixed on technique to show off their vocal equipment and to establish their right to the big time, rather than employing it in the service of personal expression, as they would learn to do in a few years. Both initially focused on tonal production, making full, round notes and sustaining them over two or three bars at a time for all to behold. And both would soon leave the making of pretty sounds to Jo Stafford and Vic Damone, and shift their attention to lyrical content. In the phrase of another fine singer, Barbara Lea, they learned "not to be afraid to sound bad"--that is, not to sacrifice deeper meaning for surface beauty.
It helped Lincoln greatly to work with lyrics meaningful to her, as she began to do in 1959 with her album for the jazz label Riverside, Abbey Is Blue, which included Kurt Weill and Langston Hughes's "Lonely House," several tunes by the under-appreciated Oscar Brown Jr., and, significantly, the first of her own original compositions committed to record, a piercing blues called "Let Up." In the 1960s, Lincoln was devoted to civil rights and taken up with issues of African American identity. She worked closely with the gracefully probative drummer and composer Max Roach, who married Lincoln, later parted from her, and last month ventured before her into death. Under Roach's direction, Lincoln sang and co-composed (with Roach and Oscar Brown Jr.) parts of a manifesto of black pride and defiance, a rhythmically multi-layered musical collage for LP titled We Insist: Max Roach's Freedom Now Suite. Her enthusiasm for music waned in sync with the jazz audience's diminishing appetite for her politicking, and Lincoln relocated to Los Angeles, where she made a living acting, primarily for television, and teaching drama at California State Northridge. Although she made a few recordings in the 1970s and 1980s, most of them under patrons in Rome and Oslo and Tokyo, Lincoln did not commit herself fully to music again until the 1990s, when her career as a singer and songwriter finally came into bloom. Lincoln was a woman in her sixties, essentially starting over.
Murphy, in the 1960s, grew progressively committed to the hipster bebop that Lincoln left behind. For a white singer at the time, this was at once a mark of respect for African American musical culture and a jarring sign of outdatedness. Murphy, whose early promise as a jazz-pop crossover star was such that producer Milt Gabler predicted that he would "scare Frank Sinatra," abandoned any hope of mainstream success; his increasingly loopy scat solos and hepcat vibe scared the audience. Murphy moved to London, where he concentrated on acting for BBC television until the mid-1970s, when he returned to America and began performing and recording vocal music more deeply committed to bop, more retro, and more kooky than ever. Decades removed from the Beat era, Murphy no longer seemed a few years behind the times; he began to come across as fully a classicist, an artist committed to a sensibility born of another time but justifiable as more than kitsch or nostalgia.
Lincoln and Murphy have been revered elders of jazz singing for more than a decade now. Lincoln, in nearly a dozen albums as a leader, has produced a late-life body of strange and delightful sing-songy original compositions, freewheeling ruminations on her life, which she has performed with a sure, unaffected voice indifferent to nicety. Murphy, a true improviser with a sense of abandon, a strength of personality, and a melodic inventiveness rare in vocal jazz these days, has produced nearly twice as many CDs as Lincoln--all of them wildly ambitious, some of them just wild. Being an improviser, he comes off best in live performance, and his frequent shows in Manhattan jazz clubs are intoxicatingly, almost frighteningly unpredictable. I would rather watch Murphy sing, on the good chance of getting caught in the slipstream of one of his spacey vocal rides, than see nearly any of the hundreds of performers who call themselves jazz singers because they learned "How High the Moon." Murphy knows how high the moon is, and the way there, and he's taking passengers.
Their new CDs find both Lincoln and Murphy in the ripest stages of their creative maturity. On Abbey Sings Abbey, Lincoln revisits many of the best original songs she recorded over the past decade, including "Bird Alone," "Throw It Away," "The Merry Dancer," and "Should've Been." These familiar pieces sound new here in part because Lincoln's producers and musicians have provided a new setting: in place of jazz veterans such as Hank Jones and Charlie Haden on traditional jazz instruments, the group here is composed of genre-crossing players such as Larry Campbell and Scott Colley, who accompany Lincoln on acoustic guitar, pedal steel guitar, mandolin, accordion, and such. The feeling of the record is earthy, of course, and warm and unhurried. The more significant change is Lincoln's singing, because her voice is nearly shot, ravaged by age and illness--but she uses all the liabilities of her vocal equipment as assets, croaking and cutting notes short, taking in breaths, almost moaning, with her head high, shoulders back, and stomach out. This is a record by a woman who is not only unafraid to sound bad but proud of it, and it is beautiful to hear.
On Love Is What Stays, Murphy is concerned mainly with departing. Nearly all the songs are reflections on loss--"Too Late Now," "Did I Ever Really Live," "What If" (the Coldplay song, done seriously and well), "Stolen Moments" (the Oliver Nelson instrumental with Murphy's lyrics, a signature tune of his), and nine more in their spirit. Murphy's voice is throaty and dark-hued but limber, and he sounds spontaneous, as always. He seems not to be singing the lyrics but thinking the words, and his thought has an unexpected quality of contentment. He gives us a take on loss--on death, really--without anguish or self-pity. If, as James Wood has remarked, reading literature like Saul Bellow's is "a special way of being alive," hearing music such as Love Is What Stays is to share in a special way of dying.
David Hajdu is the music critic for The New Republic.