Review Summary: A fascinating, politically-charged vocal jazz album from the unique Abbey Lincolns, accompanied by some of the best jazz musicians of the 1950s and 1960s.
A fascinating vocal jazz album, Lincoln and the band play sparse, reserved music with some Afrocentric and political themes and content, especially “Afro Blue,” wherein Lincoln sings about an African prince and is nearly as good as any instrumental recording from Coltrane or Santamaria. Though lacking strong, obvious Afro-Cuban rhythms because the drummer plays so silently, Lincoln’s lyrics are beautiful, “shades of delight, cocoa hue, rich as the night, Afro Blue.” The song asserts pride and sensuality, a defense of blackness as beautiful, which, for 1959, was quite rare in popular culture. Her horrifying, solitary voice on “Lonely House” is quite soothing and depressing, but sheer delight in her range. “Funny, with so many neighbors, how lonely it can be!” Clearly, there is some political meaning to the lyric here beyond the universal feelings of loneliness anyone feels, perhaps a reflection on the loneliness of urban living, too, but also African-American ‘loneliness’ in the US under Jim Crow segregation from alienation from mainstream America" The lyrics were written by Langston Hughes, so I shall leave the interpretation up to you. Some songs use elements of the blues, such as “Let Up,” a stirring number with, again, muted accompaniment and excellent saxophone back up. “Sure enough fed up” of course entails not only anger in personal relationships, or life, but, naturally, the political climate at the time. Though nothing is as “out there” or avant-garde as her screaming on Max Roach’s We Insist!—Fredom Now but this is definitely unique when compared to most vocal jazz of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Her rendition of songs like “Thursday’s Child” are quite emotive, deep, and, at times, sounds something like Billie Holiday on more mysterious, sinister-toned songs like “No More,” itself a rather unusual jazz ballad with an ominous tone. Likewise, Lincoln, who, alas, passed away in recent years while never relenting on her dedication to the civil rights movement and black power, channels Holiday. The relaxed feel of the band and their rather muted performance enhances the solitude and loneliness of the piece, accentuating Lincoln’s strong voice, vocal range, and, at times, haunting beauty. My favorite song, “Brother, Where Are You,” a composition of Oscar Brown, who wrote lyrics for Max Roach, begins on a dark note with spiritual, pleading vocals from Lincoln, searching for her brother. “Brother, where are you, they said you came this way. The simple piano accompaniment is played beautifully and is reminiscent of church hymns, something I am sure was intended by Lincoln. This “brother” seems to be despised, nobody wanting to answer his call or help, perhaps a reference to the African-American civil rights movement, lost in 1959. The flautist ends it perfectly, too.
“Laugh, Clown, Laugh” is a cute, light-hearted track where Lincoln’s vocals evoke laughter. “You’re supposed to brighten up the place, and laugh clown, laugh, clown” suggests an attempt to raise and lighten spirits after the sorrowful “Brother, Where Are You.” We even hear some swing, a walking bassline, and more uplifting horns. “Don’t let your heart grow too mellow, just be a real punginello fellow,” as well as other lyrics, are fun puns and suggest that perhaps the listener is the clown, or, to read this as a ‘political’ subtext, perhaps satirically referring to the expectation that black musicians and entertainers play the “coon” and foolishly perpetuate negative stereotypes and caricatures for white audiences, especially as she says, “go on creating those false impressions, never let your looks be too revealing.” Similarly, Charles Mingus’s “The Clown,” incorporating poetry, has also been read by some as an allusion to race strife and identity in 1950s America. Subsequently, “Come Sunday,” Ellington’s tribute to God, includes lyrics by Lincoln that are unquestionably, like the gospel and spirituals that sustained resistance, a tribute to the moral justification and campaigns for equality across the US. Her vocal style, perfect with balladry and, as mentioned previously, emoting, calling for God’s assistance. “And love will bloom at springtime, birds will sing” implies a hopeful optimism. “Come Sunday, oh, come Sunday…”
“Softly As in a Morning Sunrise” begins with just light swing and Lincoln’s solitary voice, “for the passions that thrill love and lift you high to heaven, are the passions that kill love and let you fall to Hell.” As a warning song, a premonition, it conveys the danger of love that can come and go quickly, which, as for previous songs, could easily be interpreted politically for Blacks to not take the recent progress as a given and realize things could worsen despite their ‘love’ and non-violent protests. The bassist perfectly accompanies her, and the instrumental sections also echo her theme of danger in optimism, danger in love. She improvises herself with the melody and lyrics of the song at its conclusion, showing her range and dexterity again. As for “Lost in Stars,” a more conventional jazz ballad and a standard, sounds majestic with Lincoln’s soaring, booming, and well-paced voice. “Well the lord God hunted, through the wild night air, for the little lost star on the wind…” sounds heavenly while the light accompaniment from the band allows one to focus entirely on Lincoln’s voice as an instrument. “Well, I’ve been walking, through the night and day, and then my eyes grow weary and my head turns gray, and sometimes I think, maybe God’s gone away, forgetting his promise, and words he’d say, and we’re lost out here in stars…blowing through the night, and we’re lost out here in the stars.” Again, this is another song with a potentially dark, ominous relationship to African Americans, who, like Lincoln in this song, are lost in the stars, waiting for a God who has forsaken or forgotten her. Lincoln concludes the album with “Long As You’re Living,” a swinging number where she has this sing-talk quality to her lyric, for a strange-sounding composition. “They say the truth will make you free, and that’s the way you want to be, Brother, this is your life.” Lincoln’s song, slightly ‘avant-garde’ perhaps by vocal jazz standards, makes the song a warning for self-improvement and to live every minute, an inspirational song urging people to exert agency and take their lives in their own hands. Of course, the rather quirky chorus and horn arrangement and the political climate in 1959 make this an obvious reference to the Black Freedom Struggle. Note the use of the term “brother,” for instance, another marker of African American vernacular English widely used by Lincoln. Thus, her entire album, marking the beginning of a career away from simple acting roles and jazz-pop, Lincoln makes subtle and not-so-subtle references to the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement and an uncertain political climate. Even better for us, the listeners, her vocal style, range, arrangements, and lyrics are brilliantly conceived and delivered, making for a vocal jazz album with infinite repeatable listens and, for those in the mood for late night ‘blues,’ an excellent way to conclude the night.