Album Remarks & Appraisals:
Steinway & Sons celebrates the iconic jazz singer Billie Holiday's centenary with an album of songs she made famous, arranged for solo piano by New York-based composer and pianist Jed Distler and performed by Steinway Artist Lara Downes. The result is a musical portrait of the singer's life. Transcending historical divisions of genre, Lara programs songs including God Bless the Child, Strange Fruit and But Beautiful with works of the period by jazz-influenced concert composers including Ravel, Schulhoff, Ellington, Copland, Florence Price and Gershwin, capturing the essence of what defines the unique sound of American art music and our American legacy. Born in San Francisco of Caribbean and Russian heritage, Lara Downes has garnered wide acclaim as one of the most exciting and communicative pianists of today's generation, lauded by NPR as "a delightful artist with a unique blend of musicianship and showmanship" and praised by the Washington Post for her stunning performances "rendered with drama and nuance".
Liner Note Author: Jed Distler.
Recording information: Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia (06/04/2014-06/06/2014).
Photographers: Gjon Mili; Rik Keller.
The title A Billie Holiday Songbook on this release by the unconventional American pianist Lara Downes may refer to that of George Gershwin's Song-Book for piano composed (or abstracted from his live improvisations) by George Gershwin in 1932. The Gershwin work is probably the nearest point of reference for this collection of piano arrangements of Billie Holiday's hit songs: the textures of most of the pieces are dense, and they depart considerably from the melodies of the originals. Some of them circle back to Holiday by including little details that evoke characteristics of her singing. Really, though, the most significant presence on this album is not Holiday or Downes but the composer Jed Distler, who arranged most of the music (one piece is by jazzman Teddy Wilson and another by Marian McPartland). Distler takes the scope of the music beyond what Gershwin did, aligning the arrangements with various classical models according to the mood of the text and of Holiday's singing in each individual piece. The result, perhaps, is what might have occurred if someone had challenged Gershwin to update the so-called "ragging the classics" contests for the Jazz Age, but as things stand it's quite unusual, and it offers a lens on Holiday's achievement different from what anybody else has accomplished. A typically intriguing release from Downes. ~ James Manheim
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