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Esperanza Spalding Conjures Abbey Lincoln’s Insurgent Moans



By Tanisha C. Ford | @SoulistaPhD | with thanks to NewBlackMan (in Exile)



Friday, May 26, 2017.



When three multiple Grammy award-winning jazz vocalists unite on one stage for a concert conceived and directed by a genius black woman drummer/composer to pay homage to one of the best to ever do it, magic will be made.



I recently attended the Apollo Theater’s Women of the World Festival: A Tribute to Abbey Lincoln. Vocalist and bassist Esperanza Spalding performed alongside jazz luminaries Dianne Reeves and Dee Dee Bridgewater. Musical director, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington—the visionary behind this assemblage of black creative genius—fearlessly lead a six-piece band on a 120-minute journey through Lincoln’s catalogue. My longtime favorites Reeves and Bridgewater sang their faces off, stirring our spirits with each note, even using Lincoln’s garments (her scarf and signature top hat) to invoke her spirit.


But I wondered: could Spalding—who, unlike the others, wasn’t even born when Lincoln released much of her music—hold her own as a soloist among these powerhouse vocalists? I mean, I knew Esperanza could sing, but could she sang? I thought of her primarily as a virtuosic bassist. But here she was, sans bass, standing next to some of the greatest living jazz vocalists, attempting to sing Lincoln’s deeply emotional, sonically complex songs.


Music critics have described Spalding’s vocals as “light” and “high,” “delicate” like the sounds of a violin. But she proved to me—and anyone else who had doubts—that she also has a deeper, darker sonic register. She did more than hold her own. Spalding painted with cocoa hues and effervescent blues as she scatted, screeched, yipped, and moaned “Afro Blue,” a mainstay in Lincoln’s repertoire. Trenchant in her delivery, she conjured Abbey Lincoln, performing the same sounds that got Lincoln virtually blackballed by the music industry after the release of jazz drummer Max Roach’s now classic We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite (1960). Hers were insurgent moans—sounds of protest.


Spalding had to go there.


A vocalist cannot pay homage to Abbey Lincoln unless she is willing to access the vulnerable place. She must reach into the deepest caverns of her gut to wrench out her rawest emotions and expose them to the audience. Those emotions do not always take shape in words.


Lincoln knew this better than anyone.


More than five decades ago, Abbey Lincoln introduced jazz audiences to her rebel sounds on We Insist!. Both cerebral and sensorial, the five-track album was a work of musical innovation, now considered one of the first overtly political albums of the Black Freedom movement. The only woman involved in the writing and composing (though she is only listed as a vocalist in the album’s credits), Lincoln uses her voice as both instrument and siren on “Freedom Day” and “Triptych: Prayer, Protest, Peace” to communicate the political urgency of the moment. Black rage, pain, despair, and hope are made palpable through Lincoln’s quiet hums and moans, which crescendo into screams, screeches, and chants. Crescendo. Decrescendo. Her guttural sounds are intense and impatient, insistent, demanding: FREEDOM NOW.


White music critics did not understand the highly conceptual, genre-bending album. Shortly after its release, Washington Post music writer Tony Gieske claimed: “the music really isn’t too hot.” He panned Lincoln’s performance, saying, “Abbey Lincoln, uh, sings.” The harsh mainstream reviews and meager sales of We Insist! stifled Lincoln’s music career just as it was beginning to flourish. She was “too political,” her music “too radical.” In other words, she was pushing the boundaries of innovation while naming anti-black racism in ways unpermitted to black women. The industry was quick to remind her of “her place.” Lincoln recorded a politically themed solo album, Straight Ahead (1961), the following year, but more than a decade would pass before she released People in Me (recorded in Japan) in 1973.


For the black student activists across the U.S. South who inspired We Insist!, Lincoln’s insurgent moans were political action in sonic form. Music and activism shared a common language, and Lincoln, a seasoned activist, had a profound understanding of both.


That Spalding (who sings in three languages) could understand and speak Lincoln’s political tongue comes as no surprise to those familiar with her catalogue. Much of Spalding’s music, including “We Are America,” “Black Gold,” and “Ebony and Ivy,” explores political themes. On her new album, Emily’s D+Evolution—undoubtedly a response to today’s political climate—Spalding takes huge creative risks, crushing the box in which critics have placed her. We hear her borrowing from and remixing the sounds and musical techniques of everyone from Joni Mitchell and Prince to Nina Simone and Abbey Lincoln.

Lincoln’s spirit of protest is in Spalding’s musical DNA.


But, more than a descendant of Lincoln, that night at the Apollo Spalding was the conduit through which Lincoln’s political fervor from the 1960s was rendered anew. And my battle-torn and weary spirit needed it.



Tanisha C. Ford is Associate Professor of Africana Studies and History at the University of Delaware. She is the author of Liberated Threads: Black Women, Style, and the Global Politics of Soul (UNC Press, 2015). Follow her on twitter @SoulistaPhD.


Esperanza Spalding Conjures Abbey Lincoln’s Insurgent Moans

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