There is a story that may well not be apocryphal in the history of jazz. When Billie Holiday passed away, the pianist Mal Waldron was so grieved that he stopped playing her music for several years. It cut him like a knife through the heart to dwell on the memory of someone whom he loved with such intensity. Perhaps the same could be said of the greatest vocalist who ever lived: Abbey Lincoln. Ms. Lincoln was a musician—that much is true. But it was only one miniscule aspect of her life here on earth. She was one of the greatest storytellers who ever inhabited song. Her poetics were profound and without parallel. She was African and she was American. She was a magical sylph a creature of the air; she was Mami Wata, goddess of beauty and Orunmila—goddess of wisdom, divination and foresight. But all of this could be distilled into two words to describe the great chanteuse: musical divinity.
How can anyone pay homage to someone so much larger than life itself; someone who outgrew her art and craft and left not just a legacy of songs, but music that will forever be written into the earthly Book of the Lamb? That artist who dared to write and perform homage to such a woman of substance would have to play not only with sublime technique and overflowing musicality, but also with a heart wholly of the earth and one that bleeds every time Abbey Lincoln’s music is played. This is what it took for Ms. Lincoln to sing every time she set out to. This is what Marc Cary takes to bring to record his superb For the Love of Abbey. Mr. Cary knows Ms. Lincoln quite intimately. He played on several of her later albums after locating in New York. In fact it was Ms. Lincoln who took it upon herself, as she did so many times to showcase anew musician: in this case the deeply spiritual and rhythmic pianist, Marc Cary. Here too Mr. Cary plays with a profound intensity that captures the mighty soul of Abbey Lincoln. Mr. Cary’s playing is majestic, especially on “Music is the Magic” and “Down Here Below”. On the latter chart the pianist develops a musical magisterium from which the whole album unfolds and is broadcast to the world.
As a pianist Mr. Cary is a musician through whom the whole history of jazz seems to flow. He converts this extraordinary charge into something of rhythmic electricity. His notes and burgeoning lines seem to follow the wild undulations that Ms. Lincoln brought to her own music. Rising and falling in volume, the music also meanders as it is touched by various idiosyncrasies that develop as the characters in the various narrations are revealed. As songs such as “Melancholia” develop—and Mr. Cary uses forceful touch combined by the sustaining pedal—the gravitas of the music develops not just dramatic tension, but also comes alive with the rich and gleaming beauty of Pan-Africanism. Mr. Cary’s intense melody on “For Moseka” captures the complex nature of Ms. Lincoln’s being. There are times when the music here, with its dazzling arpeggios and rhythmic cadences, comes so close to the spirit of Abbey Lincoln that it recalls all of her music, all at once. That song and the near violence of the melodic and harmonic attack of “Transmutate” recall to mind the wordless vocalastics that Abbey Lincoln created for two great Max Roach albums: Percussion Bitter Sweet (Impulse, 1961) and the earlier, equally iconic 1960 album Freedom Now, We Insist.
Throughout her life as a musician and a vocalist, Abbey Lincoln practiced studied modulation as she sang some of the greatest torch songs in the history of jazz. The militancy in her voice was so palpable that her songs such as “Driva Man” and “Triptych: Prayer/Protest/Peace”—both from the 1960 record Freedom Now: We Insist the pain of the songs affected true listeners as if the vocalist was putting a twist in their hearts. As she grew older, however, Ms. Lincoln’s penchant for incorporating primal elements in her music became tempered by the deeply felt emotion of love. The dramatic conflict between these two conflicting emotions is one of the high-points of Marc Cary’s playing throughout the record. On songs such as “My Love is You” and the extremely complex emotions of “Love Evolves” Mr. Cary pokes and probes notes, often repeating them as he searches for the exact nature of Ms. Lincoln’s conflict that leads to the mellowing in the dénouement of both classic charts. Abbey Lincoln nerve really strayed very far from deep irony in displaying her love for all things—from those that could be felt and held to those that existed only in the heart and the mind—attributing the frailty of human nature to lovers falling from grace. And she did so in a colossal, almost Grecian manner that included extreme pathos in her tragic songs. Marc Cary appears to also read these feelings well and brings this elementally beautiful “deep song” to “Throw It Away” as well as in the fundamental melancholia of “Another World”. The latter song is captured by Mr. Cary with intensity and grandeur through deliberate repetition of notes and phrases and in towards the end, by arpeggios made more dramatic by his sustained use of the hard pedal. All of the gravity of the song resounds as it comes to rest on a single note.
Also, toward the end of her career, Abbey Lincoln got in touch with the child in herself. “When I’m Called Home,” “Conversation With a Baby” and monumental “Down Here Below the Horizon” were some of these songs that characterised Ms. Lincoln’s repertoire. It seemed a point in her life where she had come face-to-face with the idea of mortality—perhaps her own. As such, her work became easier to access as well as more intense and urgent. Marc Cary arrives at this point in the life of the artist he is paying homage to at a naturel point in the repertoire—as the record is coming to a close. The sadness which mirrors the passing of Abbey Lincoln is beautifully crafted into Mr. Cary’s versions of these pieces. Clearly this formidable pianist had not just a deep understanding of his mentor, a surfeit of love for Abbey Lincoln.
Tracks: Music is the Magic; Down Here Below; Melancholia; For Moseka; Who Used to Dance; Should’ve Been; My Love Is You; Love Evolves; Throw It Away; Another World; When I’m Called Home; Conversation With a Baby; Transmutate; Down Here Below the Horizon.
Personnel: Marc Cary: piano.
Label: Motéma Music | Release date: June 2013