Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Lara Downes has sensitively employed the piano transcriptions of 'A Billie Holiday Songbook' to provide a window into the world of Lady Day for the uninitiated

A Billie Holiday Songbook
Lara Downes, Pianist
Solo Piano Arrangements by Jed Distler
Steinway & Sons

Lara Downes

Lara Downes is a Steinway Artist who has been featured on AfriClassical for many projects, including several recordings.  The first solo recording we reviewed was 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg: Bach Reimagined, a 2011 release  on Tritone Records.  Its notes report: “Lara’s previous solo recordings have met with tremendous critical and popular acclaim. Her debut CD, INVITATION TO THE DANCE (2000) was called ‘a magical recording’ by NPR, and her second release, American Ballads (2001), was ranked by Amazon.com among the four best recordings of American concert music ever made.  DREAM OF ME (2006), was praised for ‘exquisite sensitivity’ by American Record Guide.”

On March 21, 2013 AfriClassical posted: In 'Exiles' Cafe,' Pianist Lara Downes Artfully Assembles 21 Miniatures, Including 'Land of Romance' of W.G. Still, Into A Single Musical Narrative Exiles Cafe has remained an enjoyable and regular part of our classical music playlist since we reviewed it.

Several artists have recorded tributes to Billie Holiday, but with A Billie Holiday Songbook, Lara Downes is the only musician we know who has used an instrumental transcription to observe the Centennial of Billie Holiday’s birth in the classical genre. Tracks 1-2 and 5-22 were arranged by Jed Distler, who also wrote the liner notes for the disc. Teddy Wilson arranged Track 3 and Marian McPartland arranged Track 4.

Jed Distler writes: “Born Eleonara Fagan on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia to Sadie Harris and Clarence Holiday, the future singer grew up in a chaotic home environment, leading to a childhood reformatory stay and prostitution.  Still, she harbored ambitions to sing, and adopted a stage name after her favorite silent movie actress Billie Dove.”  The notes add that it was “tenor saxophonist Lester Young, who gave her the nickname ‘Lady Day.’”

The 4-minute song Strange Fruit gained new relevance when, in February 2015, the massive report  Lynching in America: Confronting the Legacy of Racial Terror was issued by the Equal Justice Initiative, as AfriClassical reported at the time.  Nearly 4,000 names were documented.  Lara Downes solemnly communicates Billie Holiday’s message of the unspeakable tragedy of widespread lynching.

The music of Billie Holiday has not been a significant part of our listening in the past, but Lara Downes has sensitively employed the piano transcriptions of A Billie Holiday Songbook to provide a window into the world of Lady Day for the uninitiated as well as those familiar with her original vocal music.

Disclosure: A review copy of this recording was provided by the record label.

Comment by email:
Thank you so much Bill!  Greetings from Alaska!  Lara Downes 

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