Straight Ahead by Abbey Lincoln

Here at "The Music Lab" at—you know I love saying that, right?—I discuss all sorts of music. Sometimes I'll review something I like. Then, from to time, I'll review something I dislike.  But, every now and then, I'll review something I absolutely love.  The other day I discovered Straight Ahead, a 1961 Jazz album by Abbey Lincoln and I absolutely love, love, love it.  What a gem!

It shouldn't fascinate me so much.  Vocal jazz albums are common.  Furthermore, Abbey Lincoln can't sing as well as someone like Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday or Sarah Vaughan.  But, neither of those vocalists ever made an album like Straight Ahead.  

There's a certain kind of album that those aforementioned artists tend to make.  Usually they sing Jazz standards written by the likes of Jerome Kern ("All The Things You Are" and "A Fine Romance",) Cole Porter ("I've Got You Under My Skin" and "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye") or George Gershwin—I could go on and on.  Those albums are usually heavily orchestrated and are sometimes arranged by a dude named Ray Ellis.   On such albums, the musicians feel sort of invisible or anonymous and they're playing directly off of sheet music.  It's very professional, polished and intentional sounding, often sans improvisation.  There's nothing wrong with those works and I'm fond of many of them.

What's different about Abbey Lincoln's Straight Ahead is—well, it's completely different.  Many of the songs are co-written by Lincoln who is a tremendously emotive vocalist.  Then there are the musicians.  I'm sure a lot of you have heard of one or two of them.  They include Booker Little, Eric Dolphy, Art Davis, Max Roach, Coleman Hawkins, Julian Priester, Walter Benton and Mal Waldron.  That may sound like a lot, but the backing actually feels very small.  

Then there are the songs.  They are idiosyncratic and truly incredible displays of talent, humility and heartbreaking honesty.  There's not a whole lot of imagery or metaphors here.  For the most part, the lyrics are direct and topical.  In a way, Straight Ahead is a concept album.  The concept is struggle—the struggle of finding love, being poor and trying to carve out a niche in a racist and oppressive society.  There's no romance and nothing is romanticized.  

The most spellbinding track is "Left Alone," an absolutely brilliant and devastating ballad written by pianist Mal Waldron and Billie Holliday in which Lincoln sings "Maybe fate has let him pass me by/ or perhaps we'll meet before I die/ hearts will open/ but until then/ I'm left alone."  It has to be heard to be believed.  That also goes for "In The Red," which was co-written by the artist and "African Lady" whose lyrics were written by Langston Hughes.

Since there is so much Jazz out there, I fear that few will hear Straight Ahead.  But, you must hear it. 

Straight Ahead by Abbey Lincoln