Lara Downes
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Smile Down Upon Us

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Smile Down Upon Us
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Lara Downes: A Billie Holiday Songbook
Steinway & Sons Records

The challenge for any musician tackling songs associated with Billie Holiday involves finding a way to distill her singular vocal persona into instrumental form. One expects that quite a few musicians will attempt to do so in the months ahead, given that 2015 marks the centenary of her birth. Lara Downes' personal history indicates that in her case the project idea didn't develop out of some sales-driven marketing ploy but instead from the pianist's life-long admiration for the singer. Downes even wrote in her diary when she was eight that Holiday's “I Cover the Waterfront” was her favourite song, and the pianist grew up absorbing Holiday's recordings in the company of her father, a man born and raised in Harlem mere blocks away from the legendary jazz clubs where Holiday sang in the ‘30s and ‘40s.

By her own admission, Downes has been captivated throughout her life by the singer's distinctive phrasing and handling of mood, and it's qualities such as these that Downes so effectively emphasizes in her twenty-two interpretations. The combination makes for an especially interesting one, given the way the classical pianist adapts her conservatory-trained playing style to the earthiness of the jazz icon's delivery. In doing so, Downes makes good on her desire to reflect “the multi-faceted complexity of American music.”

Admittedly not all of the songs on the album are indelibly associated with Holiday; other singers, Sinatra among them, recorded memorable renditions of “I'm a Fool to Want You” and “I Cover the Waterfront.” Yet when theirs are put up against Holiday's, it's hard not to come away concluding that it's Holiday's that pierce the soul most deeply. At the same time, Downes also includes songs that are inarguably associated with Lady Day, foremost among them “God Bless the Child,” “Good Morning Heartache,” “Billie's Blues,” and “Strange Fruit.”

Any artist covering such material already has an incredible head start, considering the melodic riches pieces such as “I'll Be Seeing You” and “But Beautiful” offer the interpreter. Most of them are in the two- to three-minute range, making for a sixty-five-minute recording rich in content, and the piano sound on the album is as crisp and clear as one would expect from an album released on Steinway & Sons Records. One shouldn't overlook the fact that the project involves a critical third party, composer Jed Distler, whose arrangements not only draw upon Holiday's performances of the songs but reference numerous styles of American music (e.g., ragtime, stride, and gospel) and figures such as Monk and Ellington. Listeners familiar with the version of “In a Sentimental Mood” Ellington and Coltrane recorded for their 1962 collaboration will recognize the piano filigree Duke plays on that performance (as well as other characteristic Ellington touches) surfacing in Downes' “Solitude” treatment.

Another challenge that Downes must grapple with on the album is how to newly invigorate songs that have been covered so many times before. In that regard, these versions are invested with inspired touches: “Blue Moon” re-fashioned as a breezy stride number (replete with Monk-like flourishes), “Body and Soul” re-imagined as an impressionistic, Debussy-esque meditation, and convention upturned when the chords of “I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You” are initially played in the upper register and the melody at the keyboard's lower end.

Classical training doesn't get in the way of Downes infusing her playing with a bluesy feel, as she does during the wistful “Yesterdays,” “Willow Weep for Me,” and “God Bless the Child,” and different sides of Holiday are captured on the album, from the girlish (“Blue Moon,” “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”) to the despairing (“Strange Fruit”). But though Holiday's life, as has been well-documented, was dogged by tragedy, Downes' recording is no exploitative exercise. Instead, the tone is celebratory, the pianist approaching the project as an opportunity to honour an artist whose work has profoundly influenced the lives of so many, Downes' included, and continues to do so today.

May 2015