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Andy Bey has grown beautiful more dramatically than any vocalist I have ever heard. Consider a recording Bey made with Gary Bartz's Ntu Troop during the waning days of the Black Power Movement in November 1970. Titled Harlem Bush Music (Taifa) and dedicated to the memories of Malcolm X and John Coltrane, the album is laced with the rudimentary rhythms and exhortatory lyrics of a sociopolitical era that now seems painfully anachronistic. Typical of the songs is "Rise," described in the liner notes as something to "maintain unity by linking the group with the durability of the cosmos." In sync with the screech of Bartz's alto sax, Bey belts out lines like "Oh Brother do rise, Brother don't set/Brother turn it around," with a strong, impassioned fervor that's nearly devoid of texture.
Now cue up "Midnight Blue" from Shades of Bey, a disc the vocalist cut for Evidence last year at the age of 58. Listen to the stark, moonlit lament of a man who rues having driven love away. Bey's baritone is as heavy as burgundy wine, and his thick vibrato quavers and quickens with the intense deliberation of a tightrope walker making his journey without a net. With the plaintive, simple admission "I wasn't ready babe/Where are you now?/I need you," Bey unearths the sort of heartache and loss that are the real unifying elements of the human experience. And the alto notes flitting deftly behind Bey, supporting his every nuance, belong to Gary Bartz.
Aging voices are often enriched as they defy the decay of flesh and bone, but even so, Bey sounds like a special case. His long career is a cipher existing in the shadows between jazz and the blues that's emboldened by noteworthy details. A child prodigy, he began performing boogie-woogie tunes at clubs and dances in Newark at the age of 5 and recorded his first song by 12. As a teen he was a regular on the local television show Star Time Kids, and a performer at the Apollo in an act that included Louis Jordan's Tympani Five, dancers, and a roller-skating team.
Bey dropped out of school during his senior year to tour the States and eventually Europe with two siblings in the vocal trio Andy and the Bey Sisters. The Chet Baker bio-doc Let's Get Lost includes footage of the threesome with bop drummer Kenny Clarke, all in dapper attire and jivin' to the song "Smooth Sailin'" at a beatnik-chic Parisian party thrown by director Roger Vadim in the late '50s. Two records with the Bey Sisters and assorted albums with Bartz and Horace Silver in the '70s are all out of print, as is Bey's own 1973 record for Atlantic. He did a stint in the '70s as the voice of God in an off-Broadway performance of "Holy Moses," worked in avant-garde musical theater with Cecil Taylor and Deidre Murray in the '80s and '90s, and more recently taught jazz singing in Austria and Croatia.
In other words, Bey has been everywhere and nowhere, never stooping to jingles or a nonmusical day job to make ends meet, but operating beneath the radar of even hard-core music fans for most of his career. Without asking for sympathy, Bey believes this extended period in limbo was not unrelated to his status as an openly gay performer. "I knew all the cats for years, and I always felt left out," he told the New York Times. The disjunction intensified in 1994, when Bey discovered he was HIV positive. His health has held steady, and he characterizes the experience as "a blessing in disguise, because it's made me a little more open, a deeper artist."
The proof lies in two exquisite records recently recorded for the Evidence label. The 1996 disc Ballads, Blues & Bey, his first disc in 22 years, was a stylistic departure, an artistic revelation, and a commercial success for the singer, who performed 10 tracks from the American songbook with just his own piano-playing for accompaniment. Tunes such as the Gershwins' "Someone to Watch Over Me" and Jerome Kerns's "Yesterdays" are marked by slow tempos, improbable key-changes, and falsetto leaps that beseech and testify, before settling into deep reflections on the finite sanctity of life and love.
Shades of Bey is even better, suffused with a bittersweet, autumnal splendor that can give you chills of joy and sorrow at the same time. The centerpiece is a poignant, haunting rendition of Nick Drake's meditation "River Man," complete with strings and acoustic guitar. Bey's version speaks not only to his HIV status, but to Drake's famous suicide at the age of 25. In a voice imbued with a low, contemplative dignity, Bey sings, "Goin' to see the River Man/Goin' to tell him all my plans/For lilac time." It's at once an elegy, an acknowledgment, and a celebration of life from a man grown beautiful.
Andy Bey plays Tuesday through Thursday, February 2-4 at the Dakota Bar & Grill; (651) 642-1442.