Pianist Lara Downes’ most recent release, A Billie Holiday Songbook, is an instrumental tribute to the great jazz singer.
The album release coincides with Holiday’s 100th birthday, which would have been this past April. Lara grew up with Holiday’s music, and the recording process brought back some very personal memories:
This is music that I was introduced to by my father, who died when I was small. So it was kind of reconnecting with him. During the process of making the recording, I was up in Harlem and I took a walk and saw the apartment building where he grew up. And it was blocks away from the clubs where Billie Holiday sang so I felt like I was going home in some ways. It’s a way for me to connect as a female musician with somebody who, I think, left us so much. I think we’re only beginning to understand that now. We’re revisiting that now, in this anniversary year. Sometimes it’s a really nice moment to re evaluate. Maybe the legend has gotten in the way of the musician in the meantime. Just to go to the music and really consider what a tremendous musician she was, what a unique musician she was, what a forward thinking, forward looking musician, she was.Lara also talked about how the arranging process turning vocal melodies into piano melodies, all without sounding like a mimic or satire drew inspiration from not just Holiday’s music, but her life and personality, as well as her famous live performances:
On ’Billy’s Blues’:
I love that song because that shows the sassy side of Billie, the devil-may-care side of Billie. And I think that the arrangement captures that really well. It’s a more abstract piece some of these are very true to the original songs ’I’ll Be Seeing You’ or ’Body and Soul’. They’re just sort of beautiful renditions of the song. What (producer) Jed (Distler) did with ’Billie’s Blues’ is interesting he took the theme and kind of fragmented it and brings it back over and over again in more of a variation style, which I think is really cool because it’s kind of insistent. And the song is insistent, about sort of being your own person, making your choices...making your own bad choices. Billie made bad choices but she owned them.On ’Them There Eyes’:
Yeah, there’s some stride in the bass line. That was Jed’s nod to Teddy Wilson who was Billie Holiday’s favorite pianist. And that was another thing we both thought about in putting these arrangements together, was the importance for her of the musicians with whom she worked. She said her greatest musical influence was Louis Armstrong she loved collaborating with other musicians. I think she was her happiest when she was in a room full of musicians and just sharing ideas and jamming so we kind of tried to pull those influences into the picture as well. ’Them There Eyes’ also has a lot of sort of filigree that sits better under my classical hand, I think then it would for a jazz pianist.And on ’Strange Fruit’:
When we’re talking about taking away the text, some of these songs … they’re sort of typical love songs and maybe the text isn’t incredibly profound. ’Strange Fruit’ is of course all about the text it’s about the shocking impact of the words. So to take them away and to find a way to translate that sort of shock value there’s pain, there’s ugliness, there’s anger within that song. To translate that without the words was really something … effortful. And I’ve had really interesting experiences playing this piece for audiences. I’ve had both sides of the spectrum I’ve had people who heard her sing this song live in the clubs in the '30s and '40s who’ve told me that this interpretation really captures exactly that mix of very powerful emotions they heard. I think once you heard Billie sing the song you never forgot it. So those words have meant a lot to me. And I’ve also had young listeners come to me who weren’t familiar maybe with performance of the song but have learned about it in an academic setting and sort of say the same thing this interpretation brought the context of the song very much to life for them. It’s a hard piece to play. Every time I play it, I feel very drained at the end.