That’s Him! Songs by ABBEY LINCOLN
Abbery Lincoln (vcl) accompanied with The Riverside Jazz Stars: Kenny Dorham (tp) Sonny Rollins (ts) Wynton Kelly (p) Paul Chambers (b) Max Roach (drs) Reeves Sound Studios, New York; October 28, 1957
1. Strong Man (4:58) (Oscar Brown Jr.)
2. Happiness Is Just A Thing Called Joe (5:51) (Harburg – Arlen)
3. My Man (3:52) (Pollack – Yvain)
4. Tender As A Rose (vcl solo) (2:54) (Phil Moore)
5. That's Him (3:21) (Nash – Weill)
1. I Must Have That Man (3:54) (Fields – McHugh)
2. Porgy (4:21) (Fields – McHugh)
3. When A Woman Loves A Man (4:24) (Rose – Grainger)
4. Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man (2:59) (p+b only) (Kern – Hammerstein II)
5. Don’t Explain (6:38) (Billie Holiday)
What is a jazz singer?
While this is undoubtedly a very provocative way of opening some notes on an exceptional vocal album, I suspect that as a question it is no less difficult than that impossibly over-generalized one about "what is jazz?". One big trouble with both is that there are apt to be too many partial answers and none that will satisfy everyone.
But it may be helpful to approach subject by way of negatives. The highly publicized pop singers whose records you hear literally everywhere, and whose faces brightly beam on TV sets, are sometimes referred to as jazz singers; they are, of course, nothing of the kind. Nor are any of the current rock-and-roll crop. They are not, quite simply, because they are occupied with pouring out a mass product, each applying his own particular gimmick over and over again to more or less rubber-stamped material in an effort to make the whole world (if possible) love them and buy them. They are selling, at worst, dubious trickery, and at best a fairly substantial competence heavily coated with something called personality. They are not, however, trying to create anything, or adapt anything; they have no personal story to tell you, nor any 'message' (as the current jazz term puts it) to get across. They are presumably just not concerned with such matters, which is their own business, but is also their limitation.
On the other hand, the jazz singer - or to put it more generally and more accurately: any rally gifted jazz artist - is trying to do something, not to sell something. Don't misunderstand: this is not a sermon on impossible, abstract non-commercialism. The jazz artist likes to make a buck, to buy bread or possibly even Cadillacs. But he would prefer to make it his way. He or she needs, or wants, the dollar; but that need is at least partly based on the fact that crowds in clubs and big record sales are a tangible expression of appreciation, a solid sign that the message is getting through. And more often than you might thinking or hey might admit out loud, such performers will settle for less money rather than water it down or corn it up in parody of what they really want say. In short, they want to make the dollar, but they don't want the dollar to make them.
All of which is about as close as I'm likely to take you to an answer to the opening question. But the singer to be heard on this LP might, specifically, take you a good deal closer. ABBEY LINCOLN, still in her mid-twenties, has spent several years as a successful singer. Born in Chicago, raised in Michigan, she has worked in supper clubs from Ciro's in Hollywood to Le Cupidon in New York; in Hawaii, Canada and Las Vegas. She has always sung with taste and warmth and with a voice that is a remarkably good one: clear, rich and true. But she was never quite able to feel that she was moving in the right direction, that she had (if you'll pardon an accurate cliche) found herself. Abbey first came to our attention when a musician friend noted that this girl very much wanted to "do a jazz date, with some good musicians," and were we interested? We were, having heard her sing before and having liked it. We also liked the material she had in mind now; and also - as a glance at the names of the supporting case here will show - the word "good" in connection with the musicians our friend had in mind qualifies as one of the wildest understatements of the year.
So far, so good. But it wasn't until a rehearsal was put together that we actually found out what we had walked into. We hadn't heard Abbey Lincoln before, because no one listening to her in a club up to that point had really heard her. Abbey's idea of doing a "jazz date," it turned out, was to sing the way she (like most young singers) had worked before. Nothing very wrong with the way she had worked before, but it was nothing at all like this. This was the material she wanted, the freedom to handle it as she wanted, and the right kind of musical support to lift her.
That brings us to those "good musicians." Not only are these five of the very best, but very early in the recording session they clearly came to feel that there was really something special here and were pulling to make it come out right, in one of those sustained bursts of unstrained, full-scale cooperation that are as rare in music as any place else. Take Sonny Rollins, currently recognized as the most influential and important new star on his instrument to come along in years, but still generally categorized as being of the "lean, angular" hard-bop school. Sonny plays here with rare qualities of both tenderness and virility that make his first recorded work with a singer a memorable occasion and demonstrate still more facets of his ever-broadening scope. Kenny Dorham, a top-rated horn who tends to be labelled as an up-tempo man, also gets a chance to come out from under inaccurate typecasting. If he had happened to contribute nothing more than the opening bars of Porgy (the first number of the session), he would have earned his way. But he does quite a lot more: in sols, in stabbing obligatos, and blending superbly with Rollins, his one-time colleague in Max Roach's Quintet. The rhythm section would be hard to top. Paul Chambers is, as usual, a perceptive bulwark; the great Max Roach displays more sensitive delicacy (and fine brush work) than he is usually given credit for commanding; and Wynton Kelly, in what is undoubtedly the key instrumental role on any vocal recording, comes up with consistently brilliant and inventive support that is much too good to be brushed off as mere "comping."
The repertoire is also most helpful: rich, sound, blues-tinged material bound together by a very basic central theme - a woman singing about her man, hers for better or worse. Kurt Weill's touching That's Him (although a bit happier in mood than the album's average) makes an appropriate album title. It, and all but one of the other numbers here, lies in the ballad-to-medium tempo range. The one exception is an unconventionally driving version of I Must Have That Man (which sounds as if it ought to become a standard);one off-trail dirge, Phil Moore's Tender as a Rose, given a striking unaccompanied treatment; two well-established standards (My Man; Happiness), and some undeservedly unfamiliar works of major songwriters (the title song, and Gershwin's haunting Porgy).
Above all there is Abbey Lincoln herself. One trouble with our original 'what-is' question, of course, is that many very different singers fill the bill. Billie Holiday is a jazz singer; so are Ella and Sarah; Mildred Bailey was one, too, and so was Bessie Smith. They are far from identical, yet each tends to have at least some common ground with the others. Abbey draws something here and there from one or another of these singers, or others. A couple of her numbers here, for example, have been closely identified with Billie Holiday. Abbey handles them with great effectiveness (Don't Explain, in particular, is a remarkable spell-binder) not only because Billie is clearly one of the singers she has beard well but also because Abbey has much to add that is strictly her own. I leave detail and analysis to more technically-inclined minds. All I'm certain of is that what she has belongs to jazz. Having heard it, I have become an admittedly prejudiced source, convinced that Abbey Lincoln has found her path and that it will lead her to become an important jazz voice. I suspect that more than a few listeners will join me in that conviction. . .
The musicians featured here, and other outstanding jazz artists, can be heard on many other HIGH FIDELITY 12-inch Riverside LPs, including –
The Sound of Sonny: SONNY ROLLINS (RLP 12-241)
Jazz Contrasts: KENNY DORHAM, with Sonny Rollins, Max Roach (RLP 12-239)
Mulligan Meets Monk: GERRY MULLIGAN and THELONIOUS MONK (RLP 12-247)
“PAL JOEY”: jazz impressions by the KENNY DREW Trio (RLP 12-249)
(Audio Compensation: RIAA Curve)
Produced by Orrin Keepnews and Bill Grauer
Notes by Orrin Keepnews
Cover by Paul Weller (photography) and Paul Bacon(design)
Engineer: Jack Higgins (Reeves Sounds Studios)
RIVERSIDE RECORDS are released by BILL GRAUER PRODUCTIONS
553 West 51st Street New York 19, N.Y.