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by Marlynn Synder

It has taken me a minute to explore my feelings on losing jazz singer/songwriter Abbey Lincoln, who passed away earlier this month at the age of 80.  She was many things, so many amazing things.

Her voice was a rare instrument; scratchy and lived in, one that easily revealed her long and varied life experiences.  But it was also a thing of great beauty.  She could give you gentle, mellow tones, full of fluid sensuality, and the very next minute, a hearty scream of defiance.  Her brilliant, heartfelt lyrics exposed life’s simplest truths, always with grace and wisdom.

I was always aware of Abbey’s career as an actress and singer in the 1950’s and as a civil rights activist in the ‘60’s.  But I really tuned into her musical power when she sang on the 1990 CD A Waltz For Grace, by young British jazz saxophonist Steve Williamson.  Abbey’s vocals graced the title track.  When I first heard the song, a spirit-filled ballad, her voice sounded stark, a bit rough and unfinished.  But for some reason, I kept going back to this song, playing it over and over.  Williamson is a talented musician, but Abbey’s voice gave me such passion and strength; she took the lyrics off the page and brought them vividly to life.  This was clearly the voice of a survivor.

Shortly thereafter, Abbey started to release an amazing series of jazz records on PolyGram France (released in the U.S. on Verve), starting with The World Is Falling Down. Working with top-flight jazz musicians (Ron Carter, Charlie Haden, Clark Terry, Stan Getz and Christian McBride among them), she used each of these records to delve deeper into “the story of my life, the play,” as she said in one song.  [The last of these CDs was 2007’s Abbey Sings Abbey.]

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