You’ve got to hand it to Craft Recordings. The label has been all over the map in recent years, handling lavish reissues not only of legendary jazz artists like John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Bill Evans but also spreading out into other genres. Their periodic anniversary reissues of the R.E.M. catalog, for example, have been particularly stunning, and the addition of Vince Guaraldi, Nine Inch Nails, and the Traveling Wilburys (among others) to their reissue roster shows an imprint fiercely dedicated to variety and quality.
Taking into consideration Craft’s obvious love of classic jazz, it doesn’t seem like much of a leap that they’ve reissued Abbey Lincoln’s revolutionary 1959 album Abbey Is Blue on vinyl, but that doesn’t make this news any less exciting. Lincoln may not have the instant name recognition among casual jazz fans of singers like Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holiday, but her immense talent – not to mention her passionate activism and eventual desire to go against the grain of her contemporaries – make the reissue of this album welcome news for longtime fans and an excellent introduction to those unfamiliar with Lincoln’s work.
Recorded and released in 1959, Abbey Is Blue is Lincoln’s fourth album and her third for the Riverside jazz label. It features an all-star lineup, including drummer Philly Joe Jones and Max Roach on drums (the latter who Lincoln would later marry), Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Stanley Turrentine on tenor saxophone, Wynton Kelly on piano, Sam Jones on bass, and several others. The sound quality on the reissue – remastered from original analog tapes and pressed on 180-gram vinyl – is simply stunning, both evoking the sound of late 1950s jazz but without a trace of sonic deterioration.
Before the release of Abbey Is Blue, much of Lincoln’s recorded output consisted of standards from the Great American Songbook. But here, she turns a definitive corner. Lincoln is in a somber, reflective mood, and the songs – which she handpicked herself – exhibit a wider range of tastes and genres. For example, the album opens with “Afro Blue”, the song made popular in instrumental form by Mongo Santamaria, with lyrics penned by Oscar Brown. Lincoln and the band immerse themselves in the exotic Latin rhythms, making a clear point from the very start that this is a different kind of jazz album.
With “Lonely House”, Lincoln interprets the Kurt Weill/Langston Hughes composition from the 1946 opera Street Scene in a style perfectly in sync with jazz standards of the time, but with a twinge of sadness uncommon in many of the era’s best-selling records. This is followed by one of Lincoln’s compositions, the bluesy slow burn of “Let Up”. Roach’s simple beat provides a skeletal yet insistent pulse while the interplay between the trumpet, saxophone, bass, and piano make for an irresistible combination. Lincoln’s vocals display a whole gamut of emotions, between sadness and anger to pure bliss.
The choice of compositions is consistently interesting throughout Abbey Is Blue and stands apart from so much of the music released during this time. Lincoln dips into the Kurt Weill songbook once again with “Lost in the Stars”, from the 1949 musical of the same name, based on Alan Paton’s anti-apartheid novel Cry, the Beloved Country. Lincoln was intent on infusing the album with elements of civil rights issues so important to her then and throughout the rest of her life, and it doesn’t hurt that her vocals on these standards absolutely soar with emotion and deft technique.
Some of the songs on Abbey Is Blue embrace some unique sonic textures and production choices, particularly in the vocals of songs like Duke Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise”, the Oscar Hammerstein/Sigmund Romberg standard from the 1928 operetta The New Moon. Both tracks employ vocal reverb that sounds like Lincoln is emoting in a lonely, cavernous chapel. The effect is stunning, allowing Lincoln’s spectacular vocals to stand out among the highly capable musicians.
Unlike many other reissues from Craft, Abbey Is Blue contains no additional tracks, lavish booklets, or outtakes. You get the ten tracks originally released in 1959, with the artwork virtually unchanged. But as they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. As the album’s co-producer, Orrin Keepnews, noted in the liner notes: “It is certainly the best singing by far that Abbey has done on record, and I think now – as I did much of the time while it was being recorded – that it stands up as among the most effective and moving albums that any singer has created in a long time.” More than 60 years later, these words still ring true.