To say Abbey Lincoln was one of the great singers in modern jazz would be literally true and at once not quite capturing her unique place. I know that when I teach jazz history, for example, it is at once important to include her and difficult to know how to frame her contributions. It is certainly appropriate to place her aside her peers Betty Carter and Jeanne Lee among jazz vocal innovators and alongside her collaborators Charlie Haden, Archie Shepp, and (for a time, also husband) Max Roach among important jazz-centered social activists. She was that and more, but ultimately so powerfully herself that just “Abbey” is enough for those in the know to “get it.” Whether or not that is already you, I hope you enjoy this cross-section of her work, presented in chronological order.    

1 ) “Don’t Explain” from That’s Him (1957)

It takes a lot to interpret a Billie Holiday ballad well, especially this particularly melancholy one. Abbey, on her first recording as a leader, brings appropriate darkness to it, blending perfectly with the horns of Kenny Dorham and Sonny Rollins and navigating with ease the open spaces left by the absence of piano (as Wynton Kelly moves over and plays bass on this one).

2 ) “I Concentrate on You” from Moon-Faced and Starry-Eyed (reissued on Complete Mercury Sessions) by Max Roach(1959)

This tune, from Abbey’s first appearance on a Max Roach record, displays her ease with the swinging style associated with Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, and the like. There are also tasty solos here by Julian Priester on trombone, Ray Bryant on piano, and the Turrentine brothers, Tommy and Stanley, on trumpet and tenor saxophone, respectively.

3 ) “Triptych: Prayer / Protest / Peace” from We Insist: Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite by Max Roachand Abbey Lincoln (1960)

While Abbey could have had a fine career singing in the vein of the previous tune, she justifiably turned heads on this edgy, socially conscious album. This track is a wordless duet with Roach, and I dare say its disarming emotional rawness is unlike anything that came before.

4 ) When Malindy Sings” from Straight Ahead (1961)

While Straight Ahead isn’t Abbey’s first album under her own name, a case could be made that it’s the first that really displays the spunk, originality, and unapologetic Afro-centrism that distinguished her career. There are several Lincoln originals here, but while this performance bears a lot of other folks’ stamps (words by poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, turned into a song by Oscar Brown, Jr., arrangement and trumpet contributions by Booker Little, some gnarly Eric Dolphy flute) she absolutely owns it, phrasing it with beautiful rawness and intimacy.

5 ) “Throw It Away” from Painted Lady (1980)

This is one of my favorite original tunes of hers, and it’s usually performed as a moody ballad. Here, it is first recorded iteration, it has a swinging bounce and features some gnarly but lyrical saxophone work by Archie Shepp.

6 ) “The River” from Talkin’ To the Sun (1983)

To me, this track is a perfect example of how Abbey’s sensibility as a performance artist and actress could manifest even in her music. With several backup vocalists and a driving band featuring MBase mainstays Steve Coleman and James Weidman, Abbey part-sings and part-speaks through this original tune, totally commanding both.

7 ) “I Got Thunder (and It Rings)” from The World Is Falling Down (1990)

This swinging original Lincoln tune is a personal favorite from the first album from her tenure with Verve records, a professionally vital period that put many of the pieces together for the totality of her legacy as a bandleader. This one also features delightful solos by Clark Terry and Jackie McLean.

8 ) “Bird Alone” from You Gotta Pay the Band (1991)

Abbey wrote some truly gorgeous ballads. This is one of the gorgeous-est, buoyed further by her tender vocal performance and the intimate interactions between her voice and the viola of former stepdaughter Maxine Roach. The track is extended to eight and a half minutes thanks to solos by jazz heavyweights Stan Getz and Hank Jones, but it never lags, and the post-solos duet with bassist Charlie Haden is worth the price of admission by itself.  

9 ) “It’s Me O’Lord” from It’s Me (2002)

Abbey gives us a disarmingly direct, world-weary yet joyous rendering of this spiritual. The tune was first brought to the attention of jazz folks via a now-underappreciated rendition by Hank Jones, and appropriately the accompaniment here comes solely in the form of Kenny Barron’s sympathetic piano.  

10 ) “The Music Is the Magic” from Abbey Sings Abbey (2007)

Into her mid-seventies by this point, this album puts the spotlight on Abbey’s own tunes and it turned out to be her last recording. Far from being a self-congratulatory victory lap, though, it shows her treating her brilliant songs (like this one, featuring some soulful guitar from Larry Campbell) like the living organisms they were and still are.


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