The Andy Bey Quartet
In a world where the term 'jazz singer' has been usurped by a generation of Quiet Storm R&B crooners and cabaret hangers on, the rare chance to be in the presence of true greatness is rare. So the opportunity to see Andy Bey in one of his (tragically) rare live appearances was all the more gratifying.
Though the increasing notoriety that his brilliant albums bring is rendering the labeling of Bey as an 'unsung' master obsolete, the juxtaposition of his monumental gifts and what could be called an extremely low profile is jarring. It is rare that someone gets their hands on one the two albums he's recorded since returning to the studio in 1996 , or sees him perform live without experiencing the kind of epiphany once reserved for religious conversion. For in the history of jazz vocals, the number of singers that equal Bey's combination of range, soul, power and a truly unique style can be counted on one hand. From his days as part of a trio with his sisters Salome and Geraldine (who recorded as Andy & The Bey Sisters in the early 60's for RCA and Prestige) to his years singing with Gary Bartz, Horace Silver and Fred Hersch among others, it may have been his 'uniqueness' that endeared him to fellow musicians but otherwise kept him on the edge of the spotlight.
In the midst of an ice storm, Bey, accompanied by John Benitez (bass), Victor Lewis (drums) and Paul Meyers (guitar) was in the middle of a week long stretch at New York City's Jazz Standard in support of his most recent Evidence CD, 'Shades Of Bey'. Located on 27th street, Jazz Standard is one of the newer jazz venues in the city and one of the best. It's upstairs occupied by a restaurant and bar, the music is heard in a downstairs room, equipped with excellent sight lines and acoustics.
Taking the stage for their second set of the night, the group warmed up with an instrumental take of "Softly As In A Morning Sunrise" (it's operetta origins revealing once again the reach of the standard jazz repertoire) , which demonstrated Bey's skill as a post-bop pianist. 'You'd Be So Nice To Come Home To' (the only tune from 1996's 'Blues Ballads and Bey' (Evidence) illustrated his stunning range, creeping in on a whisper and erupting suddenly into a rich waves of baritone into bass. Bey uses his voice to expand a song exposing it's heart, almost preaching a lyric as if he were reading passages from his diary to a lover. In versions of 'Midnight Blue' (from 'Shade's of Bey') and Jobim's 'Dindi he mixed an obvious tenderness with a tremendous power.
On the other side of the coin, he departed from his confessional style to swing like mad, as he did on 'Pick Yourself Up' and the tour de force version of 'Straight No Chaser', in which the audience sat rapt while his voice, accompanied only by bass and drums (Benitez and Lewis both worthy of praise) , built Thelonious Monk's abstract blues into a tidal wave of gospel shouts and scat.
Following a short break the group returned to the stage for their last set, opening again with an instrumental ('There Is No Greater Love') and segueing into one of the finest interpretations of Kurt Weill's 'Speak Low' that this writer has ever heard. The tempo picked up again with a bright take on Cole Porter's 'Love For Sale' and later with a fiery version of the Depression classic 'Brother Can You Spare A Dime'.
The highlight of the second set saw the singer joined onstage by guitarist Paul Meyer for his interpretation of Nick Drake's 'River Man'. If ever a song sounded as if it had been written with a particular singer in mind, this was it. Bey managed to preserve all of the melancholy beauty of Drake's 1970 original yet give it his own stamp in a positively transcendent performance. This, and his elegant take on Dori Caymmi's 'Like A Lover' brought the evening to a close.
The aficionado's greatest fear has always been that a beautiful thing, known only to the faithful can only suffer by wider public exposure. In a world besieged by mediocre singers wrapping themselves in the mantle of jazz, it would truly be a crime if the greatness of Andy Bey were not heard.