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Andy Bey: A Risk-Taking Virtuoso

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Andy Bey: A Risk-Taking Virtuoso

Andy Bey: A Risk-Taking Virtuoso

Andy Bey: A Risk-Taking Virtuoso

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Andy Bey

Andy Bey's new album is called Ain't Necessarily So Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

toggle caption Robert Atanasovski/AFP/Getty Images

Andy Bey was a child piano prodigy and teenage pop singer before he began touring in the vocal trio Andy and the Bey Sisters. Later, in the 1970s, he recorded with Horace Silver, Stanley Clarke and others. But Bey's career really took off when he was rediscovered in the '90s. The new Andy Bey live album isn't exactly new.

On Ain't Necessarily So, a belatedly issued live date from 1997, early in his ongoing revival, he brings out the gospel in the standard from Porgy and Bess. Bey has extraordinary range as a singer. He can play the romantic baritone like Billy Eckstine, but he'll also swoop over and under a baritone's normal range, from a strong falsetto to a sub-basement—and he may fade from a holler to a whisper as he does it. He doesn't mind showing off what he can do, but doesn't lapse into mere showboating.

Andy Bey has a great feeling for Duke Ellington's music—he can jab the piano like Ellington, and has recorded a few of his tunes. Duke's "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart" gets knockout treatment here. Ellington loved eccentric soloists but didn't always hire the best singers. So it's tempting to imagine what he might have done with this virtuoso.

Andy Bey's made some very good records since his comeback, but this superior one gets an extra boost from the bass and drum team of Peter Washington and no-relation Kenny Washington. They lock in with Bey the pianist, and make him more of a rhythm singer—like on the upbeat version of depression-era tearjerker "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime."

Bey's taste for pushing the limits goes back to the family act he had with his elder siblings Salome and Geraldine 45 years ago. Bey fans may have missed, but shouldn't have, a recent reissue of 1966's 'Round Midnight by Andy and the Bey Sisters. There's more Ellington, more risk-taking, and plenty of evidence Andy Bey was already special way back when—even if he had to wait another 30 years for a big payday.

Andy Bey: A Vocal Master Returns

Andy Bey: A Vocal Master Returns

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From 'Ain't Necessarily So'

'Ain't Necessarily So'

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'All the Things You Are'

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'Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?'

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Andy Bey 300

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

toggle caption 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.

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Ain't Necessarily So

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Ain't Necessarily So
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2007

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Andy Bey & the Bey Sisters

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