Andy Bey is a singer and pianist of manifest gifts who has, nevertheless, occupied a fringe position in jazz. To most fans, he’s best known for singing either politically or socially adventurous lyrics for the likes of Max Roach, Gary Bartz, or Horace Silver. In the last ten years, Bey has returned to prominence as a mature solo performer. He owns an utterly striking instrument that reaches from bass up to tenor with the polished glide of a jazz singer from an earlier era. He is also a tasty pianist who can do considerably more than just accompany himself.
Reissued as a part of the Rudy Van Gelder series, ‘Round Midnight is the third and last of the albums recorded in the early 1960s by Bey and his two older sisters, Salome and Geraldine Bey. Hearing it 42 years later is a reminder of how much music has changed—as there is nothing like this group’s sound in music today, in jazz or elsewhere.
The trio sings in close but relaxed harmony on every tune, copping a gospel style of harmonizing in many cases, then applying it to jazz singing. Andy and the Bey Sisters sounds nothing like the trio Lambert, Hendricks, and Ross, who sang around the same time. The Beys are dominated by the two female voices up top, and they sing with a sense of separation between the voices so that each of the three is always coming through distinctively. Still, this is ensemble harmony singing without a doubt—the soloists take relatively few star turns (mainly on the opening “Love Medley” and in a few spots where Andy pops out on his own, as on “Tammy”). The sound of the trio is not particularly “jazz”—rather, you can hear the voices’ gospel origins (in, of all places, Newark, NJ). Though the singers are backed by top jazz musicians (Kenny Burrell on guitar, Bey’s piano, Milton Hinton on bass, and Osie Johnson’s drums), there are precious few instrumental solos. This very brief album is all about setting up the sound of the singing group. They vibrate together in intimate harmony. It’s a bygone sound, at least in jazz.
As a listening experience, ‘Round Midnight is mixed. There are several standards that sound notably different in these unusual arrangements. “God Bless the Child” is so associated with Billie Holiday and her countless acolytes that this group approach is nearly a shock. The group shapes the familiar melody with a 6/8 feeling and is able to stretch out certain phrases well beyond the expected. “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” is indelibly associated with Brother Ray Charles, of course, and this version is a delight—the group vocal brings it a little closer to gospel, but then Andy’s scat solo and the snappy comping of Kenny Burrell brings it back toward jazz. Win-win.
“‘Round Midnight” is a mixed bag. When Andy is singing alone, it feels expressive and right. The ensemble passages sound unusually schmaltzy, probably because we’re so used to hearing this marvelous song interpreted freely by the very best. Duke’s “Solitude” comes off similarly in my ear—dragged back by the three voices doing what one voice normally does with such grace and nuance. “Tammy” is a song that hasn’t survived the last 40 years, and it also suffers here from an arrangement that seems maudlin. Better is the unusual “Feeling Good”. Though it is theatrical in a way that doesn’t usually fit well on a jazz album, the song makes use of the trio’s range of colors. It’s a whole performance, playing to all the siblings’ strengths.
If ‘Round Midnight has any single effect, it is surely to make the listener realize what a singular and outstanding voice belongs to Andy Bey. Though it was pleasant hearing him with Bartz and Silver in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it’s apparent that he has much to say regarding the more standard jazz repertoire. And the good news: it’s not too late. Bey is around still and performing—arguably coming into his own at last. The voice remains intact, according to reports.
The 33 minutes of music here are clearly not Bey at his very best. Get out there and check in with him, I say. There are few enough great male jazz singers today, and Bey may just be one of them.