This performance of the late jazz vocalist Abbey Lincoln was filmed at New York’s Promenade Theater in 1991. The film here is an hour long in the round concert and rare glimpse of the enigmatic, introspective artist. The singer’s television special “You Gotta Pay the Band” has never been released on DVD and Carol Friedman’s in-progress Lincoln documentary “The Music Is The Magic” has been struggling to see the light of day due to financing difficulties, which makes this Kultur Video/Lucy II production all the more valuable. To date, it is the only release of a Lincoln performance in visual medium. Fortunately, the documentation intensely captures the singer’s level of expressiveness.
If Jazz singers are assessed foremost by depth of purpose, depth of spirit, then Lincoln shoots straight to the top or very close. Time -wise, she is midway in the history of this relatively small group of singers, which began with Billie Holiday followed by Lena Horn, Lincoln, Nina Simone, and is carried on by Cassandra Wilson ( THE current bearer of that tradition).
Lincoln strongly resisted efforts of record labels to promote her as a sex symbol, wrote most of her own songs, and unflinchingly voiced social concerns in her music. She gained notoriety for her participation in “The Freedom Suite” composed by jazz drummer Max Roach, who became her only husband (their marriage lasted eight years, before divorcing in 1970).
Her great influence was Billie Holiday. Some music critics maintain that, artistically, Lincoln, even more poignant, surpassed her role model. Of course, that is debatable (although I wouldn’t debate it, even as much as I edify Holiday). Lincoln was selective in what she sang, preferring to invest only in music that held meaning for her. This directly led to her taking on the role of composer. Following her divorce from Roach, Lincoln was absent from the music scene for nearly twenty years, sporadically appearing in films and television. Among her notable film works were her roles as the alternate Hollywood beauty in “The Girl Can’t Help It-1956”, the intimately sublime “Nothing But A Man-1964”, and the perfection of aged wine in Spike Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues-1990.”
In 1990, with the release of her cd, “The World Is Falling Down” on the Verve label, Lincoln embarked on the twilight of her musical oeuvre, which lasted until her death, at the age of 80, in 2010. By general consensus, her late work ranks with and often surpasses her earlier efforts, with her swansong “Abbey Sings Abbey” (2007) considered as vital as the revelatory “Straight Ahead” (1961).
Of the songs performed here, Lincoln wrote, or co-wrote five of the eight. They are as follows:
. Summer Wishes (written by Marilyn and Alan Bergman)
. Up Jumped Spring. (Abbey Lincoln & Freddie Nobbard))
. A Time For Love. (Paul Francis Webster & Johnny Mandel)
. Bird Alone. (A.L.)
. You Gotta Pay The Band. (A.L.)
. Brother Can You Spare A Dime? (Paul Francis Webster & Jay Gorney)
. When I’m Called Home. (A.L)
. I’m In Love. (A.L.)
The camera work in this performance is economical, intimate without being intrusive. As for the concert and Lincoln herself, she is, simultaneously, a class act, intelligent, powerfully evocative, self-assured, buoyant, yet projecting vulnerable ethos. A pronounced highlight here is her idiosyncratic rendition of a song made popular by Bing Crosby, “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” Of course, this was, possibly, the quintessential anthem for the depression-era man. Lincoln taps the common denominator that she finds at the heart of the song and she does so with an empathetic level of perception. By filtering this standard through her own sensibilities, she makes it her own declaration.
Towards the end of her life, Lincoln, looking unflinchingly at her own mortality, wrote: “When everything is finished in the world, the people go to look for what the artists leave. It’s the only thing we have really in this world-is an ability to express ourselves and say I was here.”
Without phoniness, Lincoln lived her life, saying: “I was here” in her various artistic mediums (she was also a painter). This documentation is among the records she left behind, records which serve in making her one of our treasured companions.