Monday, March 9, 2015

Classical Candor: A Billie Holiday Songbook (CD Review): 'We practically hear Holiday behind the piano.'

A Billie Holiday Songbook
Lara Downes

Lara Downes

Lara Downes writes:

Lovely review for A Billie Holiday Songbook:

Lara Downes

Classical Candor

Lara Downes, solo piano. Steinway & Sons 30026.

Practically everybody knows who Billie Holiday was. Perhaps not as many people know Lara Downes. So, a little about both of them.

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was an American jazz singer and songwriter, dubbed "Lady Day" by her friend and musical partner Lester Young. Ms. Holiday had a strong influence on jazz (and pop), her singing style, largely inspired by jazz players, beginning an innovative way of handling tempo changes and phrasing. During her heyday in the 1930's, 1940's, and 50's she toured and recorded with Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and Paul Whiteman, among others, culminating in both legal troubles and sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall. She was, and remains, an American icon.

Lara Downes is a Steinway artist whose work exhibits an exceptionally lyric and dramatic presence. Born in San Francisco of Caribbean and Russian heritage, Ms. Downes began piano lessons at age four and later "spent a decade studying and performing with her sisters in Europe, in what she calls 'a gypsy-like existence' that took the family from Paris to Venice, Vienna, Basel and Rome."

Since making concert debuts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, the Vienna Konzerthaus, and the Salle Gaveau, Paris, Ms. Downes "has won over audiences on the world's stages, including Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, and Lincoln Center." What's more, her recordings have won her new fans all over the world, with excellent critical and public acclaim. My own reactions to her previous albums Some Other Time (with cellist Zuill Bailey), 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg, and Exiles' Cafe have been uniformly favorable, Ms. Downes impressing me with her imagination, playfulness, and straightforward, unadorned virtuosity.

On A Billie Holiday Songbook, Ms Downes plays twenty-two songs made famous by Billie Holiday, most of them arranged for piano by Jed Distler, one by Teddy Wilson ("Blue Moon"), and one by Marian McPartland ("Willow Weep for Me").

As always, Ms. Downes plays each piece lovingly, caressingly, soulfully. I suppose one could say that it is something of overkill to have a classical concert pianist play popular tunes, but when you hear the results, you have to concede that no one could do them any better. And for most of us music is music; we just want it rendered as well as possible, and that's what Ms. Downes does.

Favorites? Yep. "God Bless the Child" displays Ms. Downes's ability to convey a high emotional content along with an abundance of showmanship. "Blue Moon" is a perennial favorite, and in its original piano arrangement it projects a wonderfully upbeat yet bluesy quality nurtured by Ms. Downes's playing. "Body and Soul" is predictably fine, with the piano performance reflecting Ms. Holiday's vocal style remarkably well. We practically hear Holiday behind the piano.

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