Saturday, November 14, 2015

Lara Downes - A Billie Holiday Songbook

An intriguing recording is Lara Downes' "A Billie Holiday Songbook," (Steinway & Sons Records). A conservatory and celebrated concert pianist, Downes has long inspired by the music of Holiday and this recording features renditions of songs associated with the great singer whose centenary is in 2015. Downes explains that "My take on this music, as a classical pianist paying tribute to a jazz icon, 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."

With the exception of Marian McPartland's arrangement for "Willow Weep For Me," and Yeddy Wilson's arrangement for "Blue Moon"; composer Jed Distler crafted the arrangements for Downes performances with the intent of honoring both the original melodies and Holiday's phrasing while harvesting elements from the patchwork styles of American piano music: ragtime, parlor music, stride, pop, gospel, classical and film music. The result are handsome performances but a paradox in that Holiday's music was improvisational while the performances are of composed and arranged music. This is more than simply the difficulty of a solo pianist evoking Billie Holiday's music, although that comes with the nature of this project.

Still there is many pleasures to be had simply enjoying the renditions of "Yesterday," the stride elements heard in "Blue Moon," a wistful and lovely "Body and Soul," and the melancholy of "Good Morning Heartache." Still the approach seems a bit flat when handling "Billie's Blues," and the bass note runs clusters don't change this. Nor does the rendition of "What a Little Moonlight Do" capture the effervescence of Holiday's recording.

This is quite an enjoyable album. However, for for a recording that is a celebration of Billy Holiday, some the performances might be best appreciated by not thinking too much about Holiday's renditions.

I received my review copy as a download from a publicist. Here Lara performs "God Bless The Child."

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