Jazz Spotlight - A Comeback is Complete
By Don Heckman Special to the Times - 2/15/2004


Andy Bey's singing is a flashback to an era in which jazz was populated with male vocalists characterized by their sumptuous baritone voices. Herb Jeffries, Billy Eckstine and Johnny Hartman were the best known of these romantic balladeers, and Clint Eastwood acknowledged their powers by using a Harman recording in one of the most intimate scenes in the film "The Bridges of Madison County."

Bey, 64, arrived too late to be directly included in that grouping, slipping instead into the pop world of the early '60s with Andy & the Bey Sisters, a soul-styled vocal trio that also featured two siblings. In the late '60s and early '70s he was featured with Gary Bartz, Max Roach and others before beginning a lengthy association with Horace Silver. But he was barely visible on the jazz radar for years before launching a comeback in 1995.

"American Song" is his forth album since 1965's "Ballads, Blues an Bey" and the work of a jazz artist fully in his prime. The program is mostly devoted to ballad standards - "Never Let Me Go," "Lush Life" and "Lonely Town" among them - showcasing Bey's dark, velvety voice. Supported by a rhythm section featuring superbly empathetic accompaniment from pianist Geri Allen, with occasional solo contributions from Frank Wess' tenor saxophone and flute, Bey finds the inner life in each song.

On one tune, "Prelude to a Kiss," his voice is surrounded by the lambent sound of a woodwind ensemble.
A few numbers - "Caravan," "Paper Moon" and "Satin Doll" - display Bey's mastery of time and rhythm as well. In the former, a rhythmically heated arrangement springs him - startlingly - into his top, head tone register. In "Paper Moon" he dips into his soul roots, and in "Satin Doll" his voice floats over an insinuating rhythmic groove countered by a gently tiptoeing tenor solo from Wess.

Bey's interpretations seem minimal until one realizes that part of his artistry is his capacity to allow the words to breathe, the music to flow. The result is the sort of intimate singing Frank Sinatra was doing in the mid -'50s, minus the large orchestral accompaniment but with the same sort of utterly engrossing emotional connectivity.