By Daniel Garrett
Andy Bey, The World According to Andy Bey
Andy Bey, Producer
(Assisted by Katherine Miller)
Joe Fields, Executive Producer
High Note Records, 2013
Grave, reflective, sensual. Elegant. Personal. That is the complex sense one has of singer and pianist Andy Bey and his collection of songs The World According to Andy Bey. Andy Bey recorded his first album, Mama’s Little Boy’s Got the Blues in 1952, when he was thirteen, and he appeared on the television program of singer Connie Francis for five years; and he made several albums with his sisters Salome and Geraldine, before going on to work with Max Roach, Horace Silver, and other esteemed jazz figures. Some of that work was political and philosophical in theme. On The World According to Andy Bey, the songs assume a coherent, intelligent caring sensibility and subject, a world in which relationships matter—even if and when relationships are troubled. Love is seen as many things: infatuation, lust, compassion, faith, loyalty, understanding, care, dedication. Meaning is preferred to nihilism. Who or what brings knowledge and joy? What allows people to become themselves? We are encouraged to consider such questions. Andy Bey plays piano, as well as sings, and there is a significant sense of intimacy in his work.
Some of the songs on The World According to Andy Bey have direct spiritual and social messages—blunt and intelligent rather than poetic. It is interesting to see and hear what Bey has written. The collection consists of traditional love songs and contemporary commentaries. In “It Never Entered My Mind,” one lover’s prediction of the other’s inevitable aloneness has come to pass: the narrator had not considered that could be true, had laughed: “it never entered my mind.” About being excluded from love, “But Not For Me” is threaded with cosmopolitan cultural references. “Dedicated to Miles,” Bey’s original, has scatting over sparse piano notes. In Bey’s own “The Demons Are After You,” evil forces are trying to control, disrupt—and one must be strong, faithful, “cause every moment the demons are after you.” Andy Bey’s rhythmic piano playing, shaped by energy and speed, and his plainly spoken, somewhat rough voice declares, “Progress sometimes handicaps natural ability. We are not machines.” Also, “All the wealth and worldly things don’t’ last but for a moment” and “God, truth, reality—it’s not a thing that the mind can create, but first you must get yourself out of the way. It’s an individual journey—it will never work for the masses.”
“Love Is Here to Stay” is one of my favorite songs; but, unfortunately, Andy Bey’s interpretation is not particularly inventive, nor inflected with the individual spirit, considering the many established versions. That rare lack of distinction is surprising: Andy Bey is a singer that Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles admired. Insistently declarative is Bey’s “There’s So Many Ways to Approach the Blues,” which notes the emotional rather than intellectual appeal of the blues; and its practicality; and its lack of metrical limitation; and its commitment to truth. Crisp, sprightly piano playing has the old party song “The Joint Is Jumping,” with its brief notation of some man’s switching or swishing (and, an allusion to effeminacy. Is there any more explicit and significant acknowledgement of black, gay reality? No. Yet, it would be wrong to blame the perceptible mediocrity of many black gay men on Bey, who has been contending with the world in significant terms for decades: not dancing or dogma, envy, malice, or indulgent sexuality is equal to true excellence. It is only excellence—such as that of James Baldwin or Bayard Rustin, Randall Kenan or Glenn Ligon—that makes a man or his actions truly remarkable). That, “The Joint Is Jumping,” is followed by “Being Part of What’s Happening Now.”
“The Morning After,” written by Harold Arlen and Dory Langdon Previn, is a sad remembrance of a brief encounter, an affair that does not last. The piano playing in “’S Wonderful,” the cheery love song, is very good. “Each morning when I count my blessings, they tally up to none,” asserts Bey in the Arlen-Gershwin “Dissertation on the State of Bliss.” All in all, Andy Bey presents and interprets his songs with respect and dignity.
Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today. Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.