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Vocalist Abbey Lincoln’s wanton spirit certainly makes her one of the more interesting divas in jazz, but sometimes her aspirations get the best of herespecially when she fills her albums with drivel better suited for the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. On her latest, Wholly Earth, as on her previous discs, Lincoln takes the stance of a sage observer whose life experiences have afforded her tremendous wisdom. But her wisdom often comes with piety. And although Wholly Earth’s lyrics don’t succumb to catty cynicism, Lincoln’s verses embody the smugness of a survivor now offering counseling at a 12-step program.
Apparently, Lincoln has been suffering from premillennial tension since the beginning of the decade, as betrayed by 1990’s The World Is Falling Down. That record balanced the self-affirmation of “I Got Thunder (And It Rings)” with biting social commentary on Randy Weston’s “Hi Fly,” on which she sang of “People walking around living in a daze/High above the ground with their snooty ways/Putting people down while they fly high.” While the bulk of jazz vocalists at that time were still singing antiquated torch songs, Lincoln ignited her repertoire with phantasmagoria alongside themes of lost love, social injustice, and spiritual life cycles. The World Is Falling Down was highly praised, and it catapulted Lincoln back into the limelight after decades of relative obscurity. Her worldly existentialism deflated into premillennial tedium in 1995 with the maudlin A Turtle’s Dream and its lackluster 1997 follow-up, Who Used to Dance. On Wholly Earth, Lincoln closes the 20th century with delirious celestial imagery, nursery-rhyme arrangements, and moralistic lyrics originating somewhere between Mother Earth and Mother Goose.
Yet Wholly Earth is Lincoln’s most animated and riveting album since 1993’s gospel-informed Devil’s Got Your Tongue. Her arrangements, which navigate between meditative blues and woozy waltz, exhibit the overripe aplomb of a youthful ensemble: pianists Marc Cary and James Hurt, bassists Michael Bowie and John Ormond, percussionist Daniel Moreno, and drummer Alvester Garnett. Legendary vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson outshines them all with his alluring solos and accompaniments, which sparkle around Lincoln’s coarse voice and theatrical phrasing. Vocalist Maggie Brown counters Lincoln’s biting attacks, cooing and echoing with sweet innocence on “And It’s Supposed to Be Love” and “Caged Bird.” Trumpeter Nicholas Payton delivers wonderful solos as a guest on several compositions.
Lincoln clings to childlike optimism on “Learning How to Listen,” musing, “I’m learning how to listen/How to hear a melody/How to hear the song I’m singing/How to feel and let it be”; she’s equating life with a song, but it comes off a bit too precious. On “Caged Bird,” a rococo adaptation of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings complete with absurd bird noises and whistles and puckish accompaniments from Cary and Hutcherson, Lincoln loads up on so much distracting melodrama that her performance seems more appropriate for Barney & Friends than Blues Alley.
Her balance of wisdom and whimsy starts to sound condescending when the topic turns to domestic abuse or abortion. On the drunken calypso “And It’s Supposed to Be Love,” Lincoln and Brown juxtapose a gleeful chorus with harrowing lyrics: “Body-slam your partner down up against the wall/It’s a sad and scary scene/With no grace at all.” Hurt’s piano and Hutcherson’s marimba coalesce into a mocking tango while Lincoln’s flat alto and Brown’s piquant soprano mix together like oil and water. Her mushy ode to life “Conversation With a Baby” delivers pro-life propaganda to a newborn: “We’re really lucky that you’ve got here/Nowadays they slay them at the door/Wish you could tell us where you came from/But no one can remember from before.” She later imposes on the infant with Sphinx’s questions like “Does the shining spirit reappear?/Does it travel farther through the distance?” after she’s flipped the power dynamics of wisdom with “I wonder if you’ve ever been to other planets/Other worlds with other dreams to share.” Wholly Earth’s lowest point is Lincoln’s doltish reading of The Wizard of Oz classic, “If I Only Had a Brain.” Transforming the jovial movie song into a dreary, tongue-in-cheek blues, Lincoln has proved that the song sounds great only when sung by the Scarecrow.
When Lincoln looks out in space, the results are more rewarding. The album’s stargazing themes pick up where Who Used to Dance left off. She closed that album with the trippy “The River” as she sang of a space traveler and “a river on the freeway where the four winds blow.” Wholly Earth lets her display her close encounters beautifully in “Another World” when she intones: “Within some walls of stone/Another world is waiting for its own” with such majesty that it obscures the song’s naive lyrics. The ruminative ballad perks up with Coltrane-ish stateliness, especially when Cary dips into the chromatic styling of McCoy Tyner while Garnett’s suspended cymbal crashes and Hutcherson’s marimba heightens the level of intrigue.
Her wistful idealism shimmers on “Look to the Star” as she sings, “Although the sky is falling/And old midnight brings a tear/I’ll look beyond the shadows of my days” against tidal waves of cymbals and Payton’s plaintive trumpet solo. On “Midnight Sun” and “Another Time, Another Place,” Lincoln uses the elements to paint a picture of lasting romantic love.
Unfortunately, it’s on the title track that Lincoln’s spacey allusions become unbearable. The rumbling waltz is propelled by Moreno’s hand percussion and Cary’s exuberant piano as Lincoln delivers knuckleheaded lyrics (e.g., “The whole wide world is round”). With Wholly Earth, Lincoln has delivered yet another concept album whose strength lies in its lofty intentions. And although it’s always welcome to hear a jazz vocalist willing to sing something less in stride with Tin Pan Alley tunes, it would be nice to hear Lincoln beam back down from the Mothership and try life on Earth again.CP