Attention should be paid to Mr. Bey

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

March 11, 2004|By Rashod D. Ollison

Growing up, I was surrounded by wise souls who had survived dashed dreams and other tragedies that threatened to break them. Through the weariness, the sadness, the downright devastation, those old brothas and sistas still found joy somewhere, and had become patient enough to pass on "a lit' somethin'," to drop pearls of knowledge. Bitter yesterdays were gone but not forgotten; the blues echoed in their laughter.

After talking on the phone with underrated jazz singer-pianist Andy Bey, I was lifted out of a murky pool of self-pity one Monday afternoon. Here's a man, 64 years old, who never garnered the attention he deserved throughout nearly 50 years as an artist. But he harbors no bitterness. "I'm always grateful," he tells me. With his mahogany baritone, he extends the stylish singing of Billy Eckstine and Nat King Cole.

But Mr. Bey (although he was cool with it, I just couldn't call him Andy) is a gem in his own right. And his new CD, American Song, displays how wondrously his voice and style have aged. Wisdom emanates from every note.

"Herb Jordan, my producer, wanted to do something with the tradition of a big orchestra," says Mr. Bey, who's calling from his apartment in the Chelsea section of New York City. "It took time to get the record together just right, because you just can't jump into a record. Once we started recording, a lot of stuff happened spontaneously. But once you get the concept going, one thing leads to another."

The Sinatra-esque orchestra idea gave way to a more intimate, beautifully low-key affair. Jordan and Mr. Bey mined the American Songbook (hence the album title) for what they felt were "the best moments from the best composers." A few of the 10 selections -- Duke Ellington's "Prelude to a Kiss," Ogden Nash's "Speak Low" and Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" -- have been in Mr. Bey's repertoire for years. Acclaimed pianist Geri Allen, who worked with the veteran artist on 1998's masterful Shades of Bey, wrote the arrangements for American Song. And the results are open and sensitive, leaving ample space for Mr. Bey's savor-every-nuance vocal style.

"Geri knows that I sing ballads slowly," he says with a chuckle. "She understood my concept, which was to allow the music and the words to breathe. Many of these songs have been done to death, so we tried to come up with something different. To get to the feeling of the song is the main thing to me. You still have to give it that thing, that something underneath rhythmically."

Legendary music journalist (and one of my all-time favorite writers) David Ritz wrote the liner notes, in which he breaks down Mr. Bey's still-vibrant approach to jazz.

"He's embraced the paradoxes," Ritz says. "He's whimsical; he's profound; he's melancholy; he's bright -- and arrived at that softly swinging place called serenity ... Bey's ability to turn the secular into the sacred is the mark of his mastery."

As an artist evolves, so should his work, and that's the way Mr. Bey has always seen it.

"It's not so much about singing a song," he says, "but as you live your life, you can give songs something fresh without trying to be self-indulgent and clever. The whole idea is to be able to show your vulnerability and not be guarded. It's about being honest. At a certain point in your life, you know what certain words and certain phrases mean."

American Song may be an acquired taste for those who are used to jazzy singers with minimal soul and limited ideas (Curtis Stigers and Norah Jones) or straight-ahead jazz stylists with more than enough vocal tricks (Diane Schuur and Rachelle Ferrell). Mr. Bey takes his time with the lyrics, swinging softly as he showcases his impressive range. He plunges to the dark depths of it or floats to the alluring purity of his upper register -- all with great control.

Mr. Bey's recording career began in 1952 when, at 13, he put out his first album, Mama's Little Boy's Got the Blues. Four years later, he formed a trio with his sisters Geraldine and Salome. As Andy & the Bey Sisters, the Newark, N.J., natives were key figures in the overlooked soul-jazz movement, which interlaced funky, church-derived rhythms with bop-influenced chord progressions. Supported by his harmonizing sisters, Mr. Bey sang in New York City clubs and toured the globe, becoming a favorite at the Blue Note in Paris. After the trio broke up in 1966, Mr. Bey recorded with Max Roach and Gary Bartz. He collaborated with Horace Silver on several dates throughout the '70s but fell into obscurity as the '80s dawned.

By 1996, though, Mr. Bey resurfaced with Ballads, Blues & Bey, a record critics dug, which generated a small buzz in jazz circles. In talking with the artist about his largely unheralded career, I don't hear a trace of resentment. He says he has no regrets, that his music has always honestly shown who he is. And time hasn't changed that. Physically, of course, Mr. Bey has slowed down a bit. Occasionally, his voice reveals the wears in its texture: a blend of roughness and sweetness, a reflection of what his life has been.

"You have to understand that life is about pain and pleasure, and you can't have one without the other," Mr. Bey says. "And they both have to inspire you to keep growing. The main thing is to be conscious and aware. For me, it's not about being a good musician. It's all about being a better human being."

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