6 - 12, 2005
WITH THE LIGHTS OUT
Andy Bey at Jazz Alley
by Rickey Wright - Seattle Weekly
The sun was sinking through Jazz Alley's lightly curtained windows
when Andy Bey hit "Midnight Sun" during each of his
sets last Tuesday and Wednesday evenings. The room grew darker
as the bass-baritone made his way through Johnny Mercer's painterly
lyric, using his four octaves to stretch Lionel Hampton's melody
with a couple of alarmingly guttural ahhhs and meeting the midrange
to declare, "It's a thrill I still don't quite believe."
Even his wordless count-offs, barely more than rhythmic breaths,
command an intimacy rare in any genre.
At 65, singer-pianist Bey is slowly moving toward recognition.
(The 50-year-and-then-some veteran went unmentioned in Will Friedwald's
1992 Jazz Singing, an omission that would no doubt be corrected
today.) He arrived in Seattle a fairly late addition to the downtown
club's schedule, riding a wave of salutes for last year's recording,
American Song (Savoy Jazz). Bey leaned heavily each night on the
record's tune stack. The disc seems calculated to ease the underappreciated
Bey past jazz gatekeepers—it resulted in his first Grammy
nomination—while staying true to his beatific, slightly
gritty vision. In Seattle, the classics on offer included some
less-celebrated nuggets. No Nick Drake, despite the inclusion
of a definitive "River Man" on the 1998 Shades of Bey,
but there was a lovely take on the obscure Nat "King"
Cole single "Never Let Me Go." His fluttering piano
solos on that song were like the visitations of a romantic sage.
Bey took "Speak Low" (or, as he introduced it, "Speak
Softly and Carry a Big Stick") from near the bottom end of
his range to a high boil, repeating Kurt Weill's verses about
time's thievery as if willing it away. He shifted between the
sound of a man urging, "Better do it soon," to that
of a church sister voicing equal urgings. "Caravan"—the
subject of another corny joke substituting Juan Valdez for Duke
Ellington's trombonist Juan Tizol, its composer—was a hard
ramble across the desert, Monkish chords supporting the promise
of respite at the end of the journey.
Bey spent half of his time away from the keyboard, relying on
acoustic guitarist Paul Meyers to cover his discreetly chosen
moves. Sting's "Fragile" was stripped to its root, a
calm protest against war a thousand miles away from the lull of
smooth jazz. In a real surprise, Bey answered a listener's encore
request for "Celestial Blues" to close Tuesday's show.
Expanding on his funk-era call for discussion "with the heavenly
bodies," he and Meyers entered a floating groove-state that
felt magical, and perhaps a little rueful. That ruefulness colors
so much of what he sings and plays, but it's the expression of
someone who's not giving in yet. It may be foolish to hope for
a singer to teach us much, but if anyone's wisdom is worth hearing,
it's Bey's. He's certainly ready to share.