Sunday, July 20, 2014

Andy Bey, The World According to Andy Bey (HighNote Records, 2013)

Last year, the legendary yet under-celebrated jazz performer Andy Bey released his tenth studio album, the phenomenal The World According to Andy Bey, which received a Grammy nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album.  Bey’s latest release is an intimate solo affair for his voice and piano; it contains four original songs, along with seven fine renditions of some classic and lesser-known standards.  As the album’s individually focused title suggests, Bey’s four-octave baritone takes up as much time and space as it needs throughout these eleven tracks.  His warm vocals are by turns relaxed and impassioned, improvisational yet studied, burnished by time though never, ever tired.

Andy Bey was born in 1939 in Newark, New Jersey.  At age seventeen he formed a jazz trio, Andy and the Bey Sisters, with siblings Geraldine and Salome.  Moderate success throughout the 1960s and 1970s was followed by a fifteen-year hiatus from recording, from 1975 to 1990.  Bey’s career picked up again in the mid-1990s, just when his personal life began to take a darker turn.  Twenty years ago in 1994, he was diagnosed as HIV-positive, and he’s kept a steady regimen of yoga and a vegetarian diet ever since to keep himself healthy.  Bey came out publicly as gay around the time of his diagnosis and has remained quietly outspoken for two decades now.

The four original compositions on The World According to Andy Bey are especially noteworthy, both for their distinctive spirit and their unique lyrical approach.  “Dedicated to Miles,” Bey’s tribute to iconic jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, is a wordless bebop number that features Bey scatting an imitation of Davis’ playing style throughout the song.  The three other self-penned tracks are like sung journal entries that comment on the state of the contemporary world and offer gentle advice on how to survive it.  “The Demons Are After You” suggests that escaping one’s problems is “an individual journey, it will never work for the masses.”  “There’s So Many Ways to Approach the Blues” places emotion over intellect and argues by its end that telling the truth about hardship is the only real way to persevere.  And the brilliant “Being Part of What’s Happening Now” considers our current cultural moment and the importance of remaining in touch with the world around us.

Among the album’s standards are three George and Ira Gershwin tunes, “But Not for Me,” “Love Is Here to Stay,” and “’S Wonderful,” along with Ira Gershwin’s lyrics on a sublime closing rendition of Harold Arlen’s “Dissertation on the State of Bliss.”  Originally subtitled “Love and Learn Blues,” the song is a clever, point-blank assessment of heartache:  “You may have climbed the tree of knowledge / But when you love you really learn.”  Another Harold Arlen song, “The Morning After,” dwells on similar themes, while the album’s opening cut, Richard Rodgers’ and Lorenz Hart’s “It Never Entered My Mind,” contemplates loneliness on the far side of heartbreak’s distant retrospect.

In Tony Cox’s 2004 interview with Bey that aired on National Public Radio, Cox asked Bey about the feeling of melancholy in his music.  Bey replied, “Oh, when you live a certain amount of life, I mean, you try to breathe into a song a concept of what you’re feeling at that’s always trying to get inside the song with an intimacy in mind.”  On every inspired moment of The World According to Andy Bey, the singer/pianist finds his way inside and fully inhabits each song. The result is a vital new collection of jazz classics.