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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

One of the most distinctive voices in jazz went silent for 20 years. That's how long Andy Bey stayed away from the music scene. Yet all these years later, people still remember his music and now they have a chance to hear it again because Andy Bey released a new album.

Music journalist Ashley Kahn has this story and Andy Bey's unique voice and unique career.

(Soundbite of song, "Someone to Watch Over Me")

Mr. ANDY BEY (Singer): (Singing) There's a saying old, says that love is blind…

ASHLEY KAHN: It's said that if you truly want to hear a musician's talent, slow down the tempo.

(Soundbite of song, "Someone to Watch Over Me")

Mr. BEY: (Singing) Still, we're often told seek and ye shall find.

KAHN: Andy Bey sings some of the slowest tempos today. Listening to him can be like looking over an artist's shoulder as he puts paints to canvas.

(Soundbite of song "Someone to Watch Over Me")

Mr. BEY: (Singing) Someone to watch over me, over me.

You know, I like to take my time, I like, it can be very slow but it can be filled with an edge. I'm always trying to get a groove, but it's always about getting in the pocket. So slow is all right with me because slow can be very suspenseful.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BEY: (Singing) See what you, see what you, see what you can do for me.

KAHN: But Bey is not just about singing slow and calling him simply a jazz singer misses the point. There's the passion of gospel in his baritone voice, plus an operatic sense of drama.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BEY: (Singing) Ooh, ooh, woh, you, you, you know how to reach me.

I'm a lot of things. What I mean, I don't mind being called a jazz whatever. But it's broader than that. Anybody can put a name on thing. But it's about music.

KAHN: At the age of 68, Bey has been developing his sound for decades. Here he is in 1953 singing the blues as a teenager.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BEY: (Singing) I'm a little boy who got the blues. Momma's little boy got the blues…

KAHN: And here he is at 25 harmonizing in his family group Andy and The Bey Sisters.

(Soundbite of music)

ANDY BEY and THE BEY SISTERS (Singers): (Singing) Everybody love my baby, but my baby don't love nobody but me. Nobody but me.

KAHN: And by 1974, Bey was singing funky.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. BEY: (Singing) There's a whole lot of experience. There's whole lot of experience.

I didn't get any record date for the next 22 years.

KAHN: In the music world, it's called woodshedding - the time a musician spends away from performing, finding, and perfecting his sound.

Mr. BEY: I was working with my voice. In fact, I was studying with classical teachers because I wanted to learn, understand more about falsetto and trying different ways to utilize the, you know, the soft palette and all that stuff.

KAHN: What do you man by soft palette?

Mr. BEY: The breath.

(Singing) La la la la la la la.

You know, singing with airs with a volume.

(Singing) La la la la la. La la la la la.

KAHN: For two decades, Bey worked at controlling the volume of his voice with precision, and extending his range lower and higher.

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

KAHN: Can you give us an example of where you're using the soft versus belting?

(Soundbite of song "It Ain't Necessarily So")

Mr. BEY: (Singing) It ain't necessarily so. It ain't necessarily so. The things that you love to read in the Bible. It ain't necessarily so. Moses was found in a stream.

KAHN: The title of Andy Bey's new CD is "Ain't Necessarily So."

(Soundbite of song "It Ain't Necessarily So")

Mr. BEY: (Singing) He floated on the water. Till Ol' Pharaoh's daughter, she fished him, she said, from that stream.

KAHN: These live performances were recorded in 1996, the year Bey returned to the jazz scene.

(Soundbite of applause)

Mr. BEY: Thank you very much. Thank you.

KAHN: One of the distinguishing features of the new album is that it highlights his piano playing as much as his voice.

(Soundbite of piano playing)

Mr. BEY: Me without the piano wouldn't feel right - it's like me without singing. I needs them both. It's like a conversation between the two. But it's like one supports the other.

(Soundbite of song, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?")

Mr. BEY: (Singing) Once I built a railroad, I made it run, made it race against time.

KAHN: The CD also features a number of standards Bey has sung over the years including this one that comes from the Depression era. It's the standout track on the album.

(Soundbite of song, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?")

Mr. BEY: (Singing) Once I built a railroad, now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?

KAHN: One of the most enduring ideas in the mythology of music is the artist who disappears and returns years later, having mastered his instrument.

(Soundbite of song, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime")

Mr. BEY: (Singing) Brother can you spare a dime?

KAHN: Andy Bey's voice is his instrument — and his album captures the in-the-moment thrill of a master.

(Soundbite of song, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime")

Mr. BEY: (Singing) Say, don't you remember, my name is Al. Brother, brother, can you spare a dime? Brother.

INSKEEP: That report comes from Ashley Kahn, author of "A Love Supreme: The Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album." Andy Bey's new CD is "Ain't Necessarily So." To hear songs from throughout Andy Bey's career, go to our new music Web site npr.org/music.

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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