When classical pianist Lara Downes was 8 years old, she wrote in her diary that her favorite song was Billie Holiday’s I Cover the Waterfront." Ever since, says Downes, she has been enthralled with “the distinctive qualities of mood and phrasing, line and color” heard in Holiday’s singing. Now, in celebration of the 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s birth, Lara Downes offers A Billie Holiday Songbook, a deeply personal tribute to an icon of American music (Steinway & Sons Records) set for release April 27th.
With radiant sensitivity and timeless intimacy, Downes performs the songs forever associated with Lady Day’s legendary interpretations drawing on her own classically-trained background and infusing it with a jazz sensibility to honor the American tradition of music “beyond category”, in the words of the great Duke Ellington.
Downes grew up listening to Holiday’s recordings with her father, who was born and raised in Harlem only blocks from the iconic jazz clubs where Lady Day was a star presence in the 1930s and ‘40s. Trained in the conservatories of San Francisco, Paris, Vienna and New York, Downes acknowledges that Holiday’s singing has been a lifelong influence. “As a musician, I learned from Billie Holiday to make something completely personal when you make music,” she says. “Something that is completely your own - maybe something unexpected, something indefinable, perhaps complicated, but beautiful. To take a chance. As the song says: But beautiful to take a chance, and if you fall, you fall. And I’m thinking I wouldn’t mind at all.”
“Loving attention to mood and color.” The New York Times
“A unique blend of musicianship and showmanship.” NPR
“A balletic keyboard reverie, rendered with nuance and drama.” Washington Post
Billie Holiday’s place in the pantheon of Jazz is unrivalled. She was a true artist of her day and rose as a social phenomenon in the 1950s with her soulful, unique singing voice and her ability to boldly turn any material that she confronted into her own music, making her a superstar of her time. Today, we remember Holiday for her masterpieces and her creativity and vivacity – as well as the many demons which she fought - and Holiday’s poignant voice is still considered one of the greatest jazz voices of all time. Downes’ pianistic re-imaginings of songs forever associated with Holiday, such as “God Bless the Child,” “Strange Fruit,” and “But Beautiful” not only evoke the eternal artistry of Lady Day, but also place her unparalleled talent in a much larger context. “My take on this music, as a classical pianist paying tribute to a jazz icon,” Downes explains, “is also a tribute to the unique diversity of our American musical tradition — a tradition which includes European concert music, the blues, jazz, folk, rock, and on and on — evolving, absorbing the sounds of each successive generation to reflect the multifaceted complexity of American music. We come from so many different places and people, and our music is a synthesis of our complicated heritage and blended cultures.”
Composer Jed Distler took Downes’ intentions to heart in his arrangements, honoring both the original melodies and Holiday’s singular phrasing while harvesting elements from the patchwork styles of American piano music: ragtime, parlor music, stride, pop, gospel, classical and film music. He also brings the personalities of Holiday’s predecessors, contemporaries and descendants: Monk, MacDowell, Weill, Ellington, as well as Don Shirley, Billy Joel and Bernard Hermann.
The result is an unforgettable experience that places Holiday’s spirit in soulful communion with the past, present and future of American music. A Billie Holiday Songbook will be available on the Steinway & Sons label on April 27, 2015.
This story appears courtesy of Muse Media.
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