Down Here Below

Jazz singer Abbey Lincoln's Valentine's Day show was ultimately a bit too authentic.

Folks at Yoshi’s on Valentine’s Day witnessed a real jazz show. Not a well-groomed athlete executing technical exercises, nor a gracious older master breezing through tired repertoires or pimping a new, invariably tame pet project. What the reverent crowd gathered to laud singer Abbey Lincoln witnessed instead was an artist living her songs onstage in a way that uncomfortably blurred the lines of life and art — in the true history and lineage of jazz music,.

In other words, they encountered a fantastically drunk — and quite possibly seriously ill — 74-year-old woman.

Maybe the melancholy weight of the holiday dragged Lincoln down. Perhaps excessive touring has wearied her. But for whatever reason, from the moment she timidly emerged onstage — inching out from behind the curtain and finally, grudgingly, sitting down near the piano with a floppy hat pulled down over her ears — she seemed shaken. When she rose from her chair to take the microphone, she began complaining, somewhat nonsensically, that the boom stand provided for her was “for a saxophone.” When a stagehand provided her with a straight telescoping stand, she contemplated it for a moment, then switched back to the boom stand, rumbling the microphone audibly as she did so.

The evening’s first number, like her microphone handling, was uneven. Though her backing trio — pianist Marc Cary, bassist Michael Bowie, and local-talent-made-good Jaz Sawyer on drums — played with competence and occasional fire, Lincoln herself fell in and out of tune, sometimes popping notes like a late-career Miles Davis. She looked tremendously uncomfortable. The audience, too, rustled uneasily.

“It’s not easy being up here,” she announced after the song ended.

“We love you, Abbey,” someone in the crowd replied.

People do. After turning in successful film roles in The Girl Can’t Help It (1956) and For Love of Ivy (1968), Lincoln returned to her first love, jazz singing, culminating in the late-career renaissance with the Verve label that has brought her a whole new audience. Beginning with 1990’s The World Is Falling Down, Lincoln has recorded eight solo records for Verve, all showcasing original music, a rare feat for any mainstream jazz musician, and almost unheard of for a singer, except perhaps Cassandra Wilson, who owes an obvious and large debt to Lincoln.

The songs themselves, from ethereal bossas to strident swingers to impossibly slow ballads, stand with few analogues from the jazz canon in terms of lyrical content, confronting loss and suffering plainly, without the trappings of much metaphor or whimsy. This directness has helped earn Lincoln her fanbase, but now, here at Yoshi’s, things were getting a bit too literal. When she began “Skylark” — the Hoagy Carmichael classic of exquisite loneliness that, on a different night, would’ve seemed tailor-made for her voice — she choked the first two repeated notes. She was no longer evoking despair, but fully embodying it.

With admirable determination, she navigated her way through one more blues song of her own, occasionally reaching into the strident head voice — an inimitable blues holler that helps make her so distinct.

As the song ended, Lincoln made her way back behind Sawyer’s drum kit, apparently to talk to him. But when he audibly asked where she was going, she replied, “I’m lost … I want to go home.” She then disappeared backstage. As the cymbals died down and the song’s effect dissipated, the din of the room sounded like a movie house when the projector suddenly cuts out, jarring the audience and breaking the movie’s illusion. The drummer leapt up and held up his index finger — the “one minute” sign — to the audience as he dashed backstage after Lincoln. The rest of the trio followed. And after a long, uncomfortable pause, the group returned, with Lincoln in tow.

With determination, Cary pounded the opening chords for Lincoln’s “Down Here Below,” a heavy meditation on human struggle, faith, and the afterlife. Lincoln, rising to the occasion, reached down into her powerful low register and delivered the song right from where she wrote it. As she pulled the tune tautly and then loosely through its pathos-laden phrases, there was precious little space between song and singer.

During the piano break, she began clapping her palm — floppy hat in hand — against her thigh, and then against her other palm in a weak effort to get the audience clapping along in jubilation. When she reentered vocally at the bridge, her voice was still strong, but soon after, her pauses between lyrics turned unnaturally long. After a false start on one verse, she blurted, “Shit, you know, I forget the words sometimes.” Before finishing — and fleeing the stage prematurely, one more time, and this time for good — she belted out a final cadenza which shook all the way to the rafters: Down he-ere be-e lo-ow!

In the long, impromptu intermission that followed, a few patrons left, while others broke out into encore cheers. A voice came over the Yoshi’s PA entreating us to sit tight, but it was obvious the house had no real idea of what to do. And when an unknown woman later, it emerged that she was Lincoln’s manager — eventually took the stage with the band to begin a very affected “Nature Boy,” well, I can’t tell much of what happened after that, as my date turned to me in tears and informed me that we were leaving.

The half-hour show undoubtedly got an emotional reaction from everyone, be it concern or anger. Yoshi’s says it got multiple requests for refunds, and thus handed out gift certificates for upcoming shows. This is new territory for the club. “I’ve been here almost six years, and it’s never happened,” says artistic director Peter Williams.

What’s most surprising is that Lincoln had been playing Yoshi’s all weekend without incident. “I can tell you that she was fine the first three nights she was here,” Williams says. “I don’t know what happened the last night.”

Whatever happened, it was dead serious: Lincoln spent several days in Summit Hospital after the show. She has since been released, though her label hasn’t revealed much beyond that. “They say she’s doing better,” Williams says. “But they haven’t told me what was wrong, which isn’t really my business, I guess, in many ways.”

But for a half-hour, for a shocked Yoshi’s audience, it was everybody’s business: A tired, and great, old woman had cried out in all-too-real lament, at Yoshi’s, on Valentine’s Day.

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