Andy Bey: A Vocal Master Returns

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hide captionAndy Bey isn't just about singing slowly, and calling him simply a jazz singer misses the point.

courtesy of Andy Bey

It's said that if you truly want to hear a musician's talent, slow down the tempo. Andy Bey sings some of the slowest tempos today: Listening to him is like looking over a master artist's shoulder as he meticulously applies paint to a canvas.

"I like to take my time, but it can be still with an edge," Bey says. "You can still feel the groove, no matter how slow it is. So slow is all right with me, because slow can be very suspenseful."

But Bey isn't just about singing slowly — and calling him simply a jazz singer misses the point. There's the passion of gospel in his baritone, plus an operatic sense of drama.

"You know, I'm a lot of things," Bey says. "I don't mind being called a jazz whatever. Anybody can put a name on the thing. But it's much broader than that. It's about music."

Bey was born in Newark, N.J., in 1939. Though his family struggled to get by, he grew up surrounded by music.

"There was always some kind of musical thing going on," Bey says. "There was always a piano in the house, a little raggedy upright or whatever you want to call it. There were people like Louis Jordan on the radio and Ella Fitzgerald. I kind of liked boogie-woogie and 'Caledonia' and all that stuff."

At the age of 68, Bey has been developing his sound since he was a boy singing the blues in 1953. By 25, he was harmonizing with more sophistication in the family group Andy and The Bey Sisters.

By 1974, Bey was singing funky. Then, he says, "I didn't get any record date for the next 22 years." In the music world, it's called woodshedding: the time a musician spends away from performing, finding, and perfecting his sound.

"I was working with my voice," Bey says. "In fact, I was studying with classical teachers who tried to convince me that I was a tenor, which I never was. I just had a lot of range. 'Cause I wanted to learn more about falsetto and different ways to utilize the soft palette and all that stuff.

"The soft palette is the breath," he adds. "It's a lot to do with how you're breathing, how you're supporting the diaphragm."

For two decades, Bey worked to control the volume of his voice with precision, and extended his range both lower and higher.

"I'm not so much trying to prove anything with range," he says. "I'm just trying to find a certain kind of sound. You can sing the blues at a whisper and you can sing it, you can belt it, and then you can use both dynamics within each song."

Ain't Necessarily So is the title of Bey's new CD. It features live performances that were recorded in 1996, the year he returned to the jazz scene. The disc features a number of standards Bey has molded over the years, including a tune from the '30s — "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" — that serves as the album's standout track.

"I've been doing it for close to 30 years or more," he says. "I got different approaches to it; I've changed the keys to it to fit where my voice is going. I understood that it was a Depression song, but I didn't want to sing it that way. I didn't want to sing, 'Yankee doodle de dum,' so I just scat all those parts."

Another of the album's distinguishing features is that it highlights Bey's piano playing as much as his voice.

"It's like a conversation between the two," Bey says. I can't say that I'm more of a singer, but one supports the other. I mean, I couldn't be without the piano, you know — wouldn't feel right. I need them both."

In the mythology of music, one of the most enduring ideas is of the musician who disappears from the scene and returns years later, having mastered his instrument. Andy Bey's voice is his instrument — and his new album captures the in-the-moment thrill of a master.

Ashley Kahn is the author of A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album. Andy Bey's CD, Ain't Necessarily So, has just been released.

Hitting the Highlights: Andy Bey's Best

Please allow a usually jaded music journalist a moment of giddy enthusiasm, but the passion that Andy Bey's singular, silken baritone instills will not be denied. He is a true original — a master of volume, rhythm, and shade. Listening to him live is to know how it must have felt to be there for performances by other jazz masters (say, Billie Holiday or Billy Eckstine), and to be grateful that Bey is alive and active.

Ask Aretha Franklin or, if only one could, Sarah Vaughan. Or Ray Charles or Marvin Gaye. Or any of the countless musicians and music enthusiasts who have fallen under the spell of Bey's vocal conception and the peculiar balance that his sound achieves: It's precise in intonation and pacing, yet strangely loose. Sultry and smoky, yet deeply spiritual. Small surprise that both the blues and gospel figure heavily in his musical upbringing.

Bey was born in 1939 in Newark, N.J., and was a child prodigy as a singer and pianist. By age 6, he was able to perform the Louis Jordan hit "Caldonia," and by 12, he was gigging at the Apollo Theater and recording for the small Jubilee label. It was an auspicious beginning to a lifelong musical journey. After performing in a variety of situations — harmonizing with his sisters in the '60s, singing with legendary pianist Horace Silver in the '70s — a long hiatus followed, during which he worked on his voice, on the muscles that supported his voice, and on the lifestyle that supported his career.

"I've practiced yoga headstands, shoulder stands, sun salutations," Bey told writer David Ritz in 2004. "Breathing. Respect for the breath. Respect for life. Found solace in simple prayer and meditation... I've tried to vigorously exercise my spirit as well as my voice."

Listed below are recordings that capture Bey at three momentous points along his musical journey. All serve equally well as a first step into a soul-stilling world of sparseness and subtlety.

Andy and the Bey Sisters, 'Round Midnight

A 1965 recording, 'Round Midnight features Bey with sisters Salome and Geraldine, with supple jazz accompaniment. At first, the harmonies seem almost corny, but then the sophistication and uncanny flexibility of their three-part style hits home. Just listen and compare how they vary their approach in singing the title line of "Everybody Loves My Baby." (Listen: "Everybody Loves My Baby")

Andy Bey, Ballads, Blues & Bey

A 1996 recording, Ballads, Blues & Bey heralded the return of a vocal master, with a new producer (Herb Jordan) who understood and played to the peculiarities of Bey's sound. His take on various standards plumbed emotional depths that few have found in the same material. "To hear it purely, with the hush occasionally revealing hairline cracks in shifts between deep romantic exhalations and falsetto sequences," raved the normally reserved New York Times, "is a singular experience." (Listen: "I'm Just a Lucky So and So")

Andy Bey, American Song

American Song is more heavily produced and arranged than his previous recordings — acoustic guitar here, a horn section there — yet it's still sparse and exceedingly tasteful. Is this Bey's best? Many have opined as much. He sings some of the saddest songs ever composed — "Midnight Sun," "Speak Low," "Angel Eyes," "Lush Life" — allowing each to develop its own tug between memory and melancholy, romance and regret. His rendition of "Lonely Town" remains a masterpiece of timing, transition, and unguarded emotion. (Listen: "Lonely Town")

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Ain't Necessarily So

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  • Album: Ain't Necessarily So
  • Artist: Andy Bey
  • Label: 12th Street
  • Released: 2007
 

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