Lara Downes: America Again
Sono Luminus

Pianist Lara Downes apparently conceived of America Again in response to the Charleston, South Carolina shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on June 17, 2015. That tragic event brought into sharp relief a concatenation of broader issues threatening to split the country across racial, economic, and gun control lines to a greater degree than seemingly ever before. Confronted with such a state of affairs, it would have been perfectly understandable had Downes decided to present a portrait of a country mired in despair and bereft of hope; certainly her eloquent words in the album's accompanying booklet show she's aware of how things stand, and it would be hard to contest her contention that the “rifts and rivalries that divide us as a nation seem to run deeper than ever.” Yet rather than give in to despair, Downes, drawing inspiration from Langston Hughes' 1938 poem “Let America Be America Again,” has opted to celebrate resilience and embrace hope in fashioning an uplifting tribute that re-affirms with fervent conviction her belief that America's best days lie ahead, no matter how much current evidence might suggest otherwise.

To that end, she's compiled a remarkable selection of music by some of America's greatest—Duke Ellington, Lou Harrison, George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Scott Joplin, Irving Berlin, and Aaron Copland, among them—and balanced familiar standards and folk songs with a small number of newly composed works (e.g., Angélica Negrón's “Sueno Recurrente”). It's not the first time she's celebrated her country's artistry: a year ago, the superb A Billie Holiday Songbook found her honouring another seminal American figure; this time, the broadened perspective sees Downes performing music written as early as 1905 (Samuel Coleridge-Taylor's “Deep River”) and as recently as 2012 (Dan Visconti's “Nocturne from Lonesome Roads”).

Though the album is best experienced as a whole, standouts naturally emerge. Her lovely, elegiac renderings of the beloved traditional “Shenandoah,” Ellington's “Melancholia,” and Gershwin's “I Loves You Porgy” (in which Downes also honours Nina Simone by adopting her arrangement) represent as fine a sampling of Downes' artistry as any on record, and her triumphant take on Coleridge-Taylor's Spiritual “Deep River” does justice to a song famously sung by Marian Anderson on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1939. Admittedly, I could have done with one or two fewer trills in “I Loves You Porgy” and though it's an apt selection for a project of this kind Harold Arlen's “Over the Rainbow” has become arguably a tad too familiar, but such caveats are of the minor kind.

To these ears, Downes is the consummate musician, a pianist who blends taste, technique, and feeling into a total package. Throughout this encompassing portrait, she demonstrates a sensitivity of touch and command of tempo and dynamics that distinguish her from others; she moves from the intensity of high drama to the hush of romantic intimacy with ease, and further to that, possesses a natural feel for when to hew to a theme and elaborate upon it. From bravura set-pieces (Morton Gould's “American Caprice,” Ernest Bloch's “At Sea,” Florence Price's “Fantasie Negre”) to heartfelt miniatures (Harrison's “New York Waltzes,” Howard Hanson's “Slumber Song”), Downes' elegant playing consistently resonates with affirmative purpose.

November 2016