Abbey Lincoln: It’s Me

Abbey Lincoln
It's Me

I have poignant memories of the day after Betty Carter died. It was October of 1998 and I decided to take time out of my African-American Studies class to listen to and talk about the legendary jazz diva. To my surprise (and reserved anger), few within a class of 45 had ever heard of Carter, save those few who remembered her guest appearance on The Cosby Show a few years earlier. With Carter’s death, a generation had passed — Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Ms. Sassy Sarah Vaughn — a generation once passed a torch from Billie Holiday. But one of the divas still standing — thriving really — was Abbey Lincoln, now in the autumn of her life and at the peak of her talents as a vocalist, composer, and lyricist. It’s Me is Lincoln’s tenth album for the Verve label, in a 13-year period that began with her “comeback” album, 1990’s The World is Falling Down.

On It’s Me, Lincoln is backed by a trio of pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Ray Drummond, drummer Jaz Sawyer and, on seven of the tracks, a full orchestra under the direction of Laurent Cugny and Alan Broadbent. The disc’s title track is based on a traditional African-American spiritual which Lincoln dutifully endows with her own unique spirit and lyrical sensibility (ably cushioned by Barron’s solo piano). The song is one of six songs on It’s Me that feature original Lincoln lyrics. Three of those songs — “Love is Made”, “Chateaux de Joux”, and “They Call it Jazz” — also feature original Lincoln compositions.

Though she’s been in the industry for more than 50 years, Lincoln didn’t begin writing songs until she was 40 (“Natas”, which appears on her 1973 classic People in Me). As she told Down Beat writer Jim Macnie a few years ago, her songwriting skill is derived from a female muse: “I commune with her spirit … She paints and writes, and she made me a composer.” (July 1997) The beautiful “Love is Made”, which features a full-bodied solo by saxophonist Julien Lourau, puts a spin on the notion of “making love” by suggesting that “the magic of the moment was made for you and me / Love is made, Love is made”. “Chateaux de Joux”, which translates as “Castle of the Forest”, was inspired by a performance that Lincoln once gave at an old castle somewhere between France and Switzerland. Legendary Haitian insurrectionist and political icon Toussaint L’Ouverture was in fact imprisoned and later died in the prison. Thus the song pays tribute to L’Ouverture and the spirit of resistance that marked Lincoln’s own transition more than forty years ago from supper-club chanteuse to serious jazz musician (“Haunted by the spirit … building for a prison / Spirit of the dread / Long ago a place to go and live until you’re dead”).

There are several tributes on It’s Me, including the original “They Call it Jazz”, in which Lincoln sings longingly about the music and culture that has provided sustenance for her over the years. She also records the Cedar Walton-penned “Maestro”, which the pianist wrote on a flight to Japan after hearing about the death of Duke Ellington. Lincoln originally recorded the tune with Walton in the late 1970s and relished the opportunity to record it again with Kenny Barron.

But so much of Lincoln’s verve is about her voice — those once disparaged flat tones — and the myriad of colors that Lincoln summons within those tones. Though she’s never been known for performing standards, it is perhaps Lincoln’s performance on Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer’s “Skylark” in which she is perhaps at her best on this outing, aided by a thoughtful solo from Barron, who really is in fine form throughout. Other standouts include “Through the Years”, which she co-wrote with pianist Bheki Mseleku, and the playful “Can You Dig It”, which was inspired by her young nephew Darryl Woolridge, who gets a co-writing credit.

In an ironic twist, Lincoln also records “Runnin’ Wild”, a song that was once performed by Marilyn Monroe in one of her films. Lincoln, of course, first became famous in 1956 because of an appearance in the Jayne Mansfield film The Girl Can’t Help It, where she wore a dress once worn by Ms. Monroe. It was an occasion that found favor among the bourgeois readership of Ebony magazine, which felt compelled to do a story about the black girl who wore Marilyn Monroe’s dress in June of 1957. Lincoln has long jettisoned the kinds of audiences that might find her wearing Marilyn Monroe’s dress in any way remarkable and there was a price to pay (for more than two decades) for her willingness to use her gifts in the service of social change. Lincoln’s lifetime detours have served only to strengthen her resolve as an artist and embolden her sense that she could make the best artistic choices for herself as black women in the music industry. As Farah Jasmine Griffin suggests, Abbey Lincoln “did not have a model like the one she’s become; however her life allows us to imagine the possibilities of spiritual and artistic growth for … any number of contemporary talented young black women.” (191)

In an interview with Jacqueline Trescott of The Washington Post more than twenty years ago, Lincoln stated, “Since I’ve discovered the ways of the industry, I have been at odds … the industry sees itself as the chief, but the arts precede the industry. I started to do what I do long before I knew there was an industry”. (February 19, 1983) Ultimately it’s Lincoln’s loyal fans and new converts who most benefit, as we’ve been able to witness “A Woman at Her Peak” (that’s for you Nay-Nay, wherever you be) in the autumn of her life.