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On American Song, Andy Bey Brings New Life to Classic Ballads of the 20th Century

By Bret McCabe | Posted 5/5/2004

Geri Allen's spooky piano lines and Kiyoshi Kitagawa's creeping bass sketch a furtive dance for nearly a minute before the melody breaks through, and even then it's barely a whisper of a suggestion. A handful of notes, not even a full motif. And then Andy Bey's rich baritone slides in, gently exhaling the lyrics, and one line in the song is unmistakably familiar and deliciously new. I used to visit all the very gay places . . .

Many songs have attained classic and/or standard status in the canon of the American songbook, but only a handful command the imagination like Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life." Strayhorn wrote this ballad in the mid-1930s while in his early 20s, before he had moved to New York to work with Duke Ellington, but few songs capture or are more associated with a bittersweetly urban and urbane Manhattan. And the stupefying magic of the song is that its elusive charms almost always outshine its setting. Whether tackled by the nigh divine--Nat King Cole's original 1949 version, Johnny Hartman and John Coltrane's sterling 1963 version--or being murdered by blowsy voices in supper clubs, it's still "Lush Life," a daydream of jaded elegance that compresses the thematic grandeur of F. Scott Fitzgerald's Jazz Age novels into about six impeccable minutes.

Bey's "Lush Life" disarms with its uncommon ethereality, stripping an already economical song to spectral elements--Bey's baritone, Allen's soft keys, Kitagawa's bass-note shadows, and, halfway through, wire-brushed cymbal and snare that dusts a layer of fallen leaves over it all. It's an unconventional freshness that Bey and a small cast of musicians bring to all 10 familiar friends on his latest, American Song.

"[The album] was about picking the best," Bey says over the phone from his home in New York in a lithe, graceful voice that doesn't betray a day of his 66 years. "Songs that people have heard and some of the songs that people hadn't heard that much. Some of the tunes, like 'Satin Doll' and 'Lush Life,' it was a challenge to come up with something fresh but still retaining the song somewhat."

The primarily ballads Song features Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss," Ogden Nash's "Speak Low," Leonard Bernstein's "Lonely Town," Harold Arlen's "It's Only a Paper Moon," and others in spacious arrangements that spotlight Bey's husky presence. Dwight Andrews' airy flute darts around Bey's long phrasing in Raymond Evans "Never Let Me Go." A sparse horn section lends Bey a menagerie of hues to work off of in "Prelude to a Kiss." Even the relatively straightforward, at first listen, "Speak Low" reveals layers of subtle subtraction--horn bursts appear only to drift back into the melody's shadows, the tempo increases only to be heard behind Bey's rising volume.

These unusual approaches make Bey the emotional interpreter and centerpiece of each song. His sizzling vibrato adds the sensual spice to "Midnight Sun"; his chewy vocal elisions in "Caravan" outline a percolating chain that holds the bubbly tune together.

"When you do a song you should have a concept for it--not that you have to change it to where it's unrecognizable," Bey says. "The main thing is to focus on the song and kind of communicate it to the listener. Songs take on different meanings at all times. If you've been singing songs as long as I've been singing them off and on, you find new meaning in them."

Song--and, indeed, all of his albums since his 1995 Ballads, Blues, and Bey--is a jazz cousin to many moments in Johnny Cash's 1990s "American Recordings" album series of curious covers and interpretations. Bey has re-emerged as one of the most distinctive voices in jazz since Ballads, voicing new life into an expected repertoire (the Gershwins' "Someone to Watch Over Me" and Cole Porter's "You'd Be so Nice to Come Home To" on Ballads) and making eccentric choices all his own (Nick Drake's "River Man" from 1998's Shades of Bey). This approach wisely doesn't try to update artificially the material but gives the artist the freedom to put a contemporary imprint on it, one informed by an entire career.

In Bey's case, a career interrupted: A young touring sensation with his siblings Salome and Geraldine as Andy Bey and the Bey Sisters in the 1950s and '60s, the group was underrecorded during its time. And though Bey sang for a number of artists in the 1960s and '70s--he appears on albums such as Gary Bartz's 1970 Harlem Bush Music, Max Roach's 1968 Members, Don't Git Weary, and Duke Pearson's 1968 big-band outing Now Hear This!--prior to '95's Ballads, Bey's last solo album was 1970's Experience and Judgement.

"I didn't record for almost 25 years," Bey says. "I was doing stuff with Horace Silver, recording some of his stuff back in the middle 1980s to the early 1990s, but I had actually left the band. But he would call me back to do some recordings. I was doing my own thing."

His own thing included teaching voice at the Bruckner Conservatory in Linz, Austria, and writing his own music, even though he wasn't being approached to record. "I didn't have any offers--well, most of the time I didn't have the right offers," Bey says. "Most of the time nobody was interested."

Bey first met producer Herb Jordan in 1994, and the relationship developed into a working one. Jordan produced Ballads, and each of Bey's subsequent albums since, shepherding Bey's recent resurgence.

It's a comeback that is only partially complete. Bey's recent output has rekindled longtime comparisons to Billy Eckstine, Johnny Hartman, and Joe Williams, primarily because Bey has interpreted primarily ballads and midtempo material that exquisitely gels with his velvety-smooth voice, but Bey can soulfully belt and holler in a league by himself--revisit his work with Bartz, Silver, and Pearson for proof. Bey's own writing travels through the more distinctive territories of his voice, and with any luck, his return can midwife the emergence of Bey the songwriter. Hopefully.

"I'm not really thinking about recording at this point, [although] I'd like to do more original material, so maybe that will be something in the future," Bey says. "The main thing is you have to find a strong enough purpose to survive and want to do the music in spite of whatever you can identify with what's going on out there. If you take to heart and get too serious about it, naturally you might get a little pissed, but at the same time, you have to get yourself together and pull yourself out of those kind of conditions and just keep doing what you're doing."

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