After a twenty two year absence from recording Andy Bey returned with four albums that have become a permanent part of the musical landscape. The 2005 Grammy Nominated American Song is a delicious celebration of one of America’s great gifts to the music world: The American Songbook. On his new release Ain’t Necessarily So Bey brings the energy of live performance to compositions by the gods of American Songwriting. Insiders have always known about Andy Bey.
Given his limited output of studio recordings, live performances were the source of Bey’s reputation as singer. Aretha Franklin reminisces about the nights when Andy and The Bey Sisters worked the Village in New York: “Soon as I finished my gig I’d run over to hear them. Andy never got the recognition he deserved . . . jazz originals . . . brilliant and precious.” Like the playground legend who never made it to the NBA, Andy Bey was almost consigned to the fading murmurs of those who caught him in Paris in ‘59, or Birdland in the mid ‘60s.
There are few left who remember when Lena, Nina and Carmen crowded into Harlem’s Shalimar to hear Bey light it up. That tantalizing footage of Andy Bey and his sisters delighting a crowd of Parisian partygoers in the Chet Baker documentary Let’s Get Lost, gives us a clue of the years of brilliance that were never committed to vinyl. One can only imagine what we’ve missed. But, we have been blessed with four records that have changed how we think of Jazz vocals. Decades intervened between those after hours below the radar sessions and the 1996 recordings presented on Ain’t Necessarily So. But the vivid performances haven’t dimmed.
Like so many before him, British vocalist Jamie Cullum described what it’s like to fall under Bey’s spell: “Andy Bey was at Ronnie Scott’s and I saw him six nights in a row. I got into a huge amount of debt going to see Andy Bey. What I love about him is that he creates an atmosphere. As soon as he opens his mouth, you’re transported to another place.”
A recording of standards has become the default option for artists in search of an audience or a late career boost. A new cadre of singers has been anointed keepers of the Songbook flame. But as The New Yorker observed, the proof is in the listening: “The “jazz vocal section of your record store is probably dominated by young white singers , but Andy Bey an African-American veteran has made this year’s record to beat.” Andy Bey’s live performance, on Ain’t Necessarily So makes the point that the best performers raise the standards by drawing more from a song than the obvious. At 67 Andy Bey is one of the last major performers with a personal connection to the era. But he refuses to be bound by precedent. He invests these eight songs with an accumulation of musical sensibilities that make them sound as if they were born yesterday. The songs may be standards, but the interpretations are by no means routine. As People magazine confirmed “American song has met an American Master. “