Jazz Singer

Portrait by Richard Avedon

Artists generally age like the rest of us, bidding a grudging goodbye to the horsepower of youth and leaning on stories from earlier, faster days. Some, though, build slowly and keep the heat on. When it works, methods and habits fuse into a single, thick style that simultaneously enhances ideas and celebrates its own peculiarities. Meet Andy Bey. Now 64, the Newark-born pianist and singer was performing on bills with Louis Jordan at the Apollo when he was twelve. His admirers have included John Coltrane and Sarah Vaughan. In the 1960’s, Bey formed a trio with his sisters Salome and Geraldine, recording for Prestige and touring Europe. In the seventies, he worked with Horace Silver, made jubilant records with the saxophonist Gary Bartz, and recorded “Experience and Judgement” (1974), a solo album that remains a cult favorite. A few years ago, Bey returned to the studio with the producer Herb Jordan and began making a series of records concentrating on ballads and standards. “American Song” is the fourth and most recent. Bey’s rich, wide bass-baritone is plainly and proudly seductive, but there is a radical sensibility hidden inside his huge natural gift. Bey can be as velvety as the occasion requires – only to leap into ecstatic commentary, lifting a chestnut like “Caravan” far above its customary piano-bar iterations. To hear Bey animate a lyric, listen to “Speak Low,” on “American Song.” He swings “We’re late, darling, we’re lat’ as hard as Sinatra did, but he also makes the line a cry of joy, an admission, a resonant verdict. The “jazz vocals” section in your local record store is probably dominated by young white singers, but an African-American veteran has made this year’s record to heat.

- Sasha Frere-Jones