CULTURE

True to her word five decades on

Performing two shows in Athens this week as part of a four-day series dubbed «Jazz Legends,» veteran singer Abbey Lincoln will be bringing with her an impressive musical background now several decades old. The 74-year-old artist, who stands out for an incredibly earnest approach to a body of work that dates back to the 1950s, has, despite the passing of time, maintained extremely high standards. Still active as a recording artist, Lincoln, who performs in Athens this Friday and Saturday, has continued to rake in enthusiastic reviews for her albums. Last year’s «It’s Me,» the second of her two albums on the prestigious Verve label, prompted certain critics to note that Lincoln’s result more than matched much of her mentor Billie Holiday’s work. Throughout her career, the husky-voiced Lincoln has been compared to the legendary Holiday for her adherence to melody, subtle phrasing as an alternative to showy improvisation, and honest delivery. In a recent interview, the visiting act who has often cited Holiday as an inspiration and guiding force, once again highlighted her mentor as the reason she took up singing in the first place, after hearing a Billie Holiday record at the age of 14. «Her voice spoke straight to my heart,» said Lincoln, who also mentioned the effect of tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins as a basic reason. «I’d also heard other types of music, but these two deeply influenced me, especially Billie Holiday, because she was real.» As with her heroine, Lincoln has generated a solid reputation for meaning the lyrics of her songs. One critic recently noted that «because she puts so much thought into each of her recordings, it is not an understatement to say that every Abbey Lincoln set is well worth owning.» A dramatic performer whose interpretations are full of truth and insight, Lincoln paradoxically started her career as a lightweight supper-club singer. Early on, in the mid-1950s, she recorded with the prolific bandleader, altoist and occasional trumpeter Benny Carter, already two decades deep into his career. In 1957, Lincoln performed a number in the Hollywood film «The Girl Can’t Help It.» Her early albums, in the late 1950s, featured drummer Max Roach, to whom Lincoln was married in the 1960s. Even during these early years Lincoln had already developed emotional intensity in her vocal delivery, as well as strict criteria in selecting the songs she would sing. The latter is suggested by the somewhat subdued rate at which Lincoln has recorded. Another contributing factor to the restrained output was the political nature of some of the singer’s work, which, consequently, made it hard for her to get work. For a decade, beginning in 1962, Lincoln became involved in acting and did not record as a leader. In 1973, however, she re-emerged as a singer and gradually became fully engaged in singing again. In the following decade, Lincoln released two Billie Holiday tribute albums, which both served to point out that the seasoned singer was still in her prime. Even today, five decades on, Lincoln, well into her 70s, will be touring here as a fully focused artist who knows exactly where she stands. The four-day «Jazz Legends» festival, at the Big Top Theater (Kifissou & Petrou Ralli, tel 210.490.6300), begins tomorrow with Preservation Hall Jazz, which will also perform a second show on Thursday.