I grew up in the town of the slow bicycle race. Last one across the finish line wins. Veer left or right and you’re disqualified. Did your foot touch ground? Forget it. Fall? Too bad. Fall and knock down another rider? He may kick your ass. The dangers and difficulties aren’t entirely different from those of slow ballad singing (aside from the ass-kicking potential). Shirley Horn is the absolute queen here, but this is Andy Bey’s territory as well, and he reminds a former slow-cyclist of as much on his latest disc. But whether he’s doing his slow stroll or speeding things up, he’s constantly playing with voices and registers. He has a near-whisper voice that floats syllables in a mist, an edged voice that adds an urgent listen-here to what’s being said, and myriad permutations of both across his four octaves. He’s an incomparable vocal talent, a natural bass-baritone resource.
He was never recorded regularly as a leader until his fiftysomething years in the mid-’90s, but since then things have been looking up for him and us. The fourth of the Bey renaissance discs skips the originals and out-of-left field pop covers (Nick Drake, Sting, etc.) that spiced its predecessors. Instead, this is an all-standards set par excellence: “Never Let Me Go,” “Speak Low,” “Angel Eyes,” “Prelude to a Kiss,” “Lonely Town” and the like. These are all celebrations of America’s supposedly corny pre-rock ’n’ roll romanticism, and Bey, often adding his own piano accompaniment to his beautiful baritone, makes them sound like chapters from a book of life. Kudos, too, to pianist Geri Allen who plays on two tunes and adds wispy, impressionistic horn arrangements, and to Basie alum Frank Wess for his sensitive sax and flute solos.
W. Kim Heron is the managing editor of Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].