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Pianist Lara Downes: 'Music Opens Up Minds And Hearts'

Rik Keller

In a pre-interview exchange of text messages between Classics a la Carte host James Baker and pianist Lara Downes, Lara asked: “Do you have my new recording of spirituals and freedom songs?” Later, in the interview, Baker spoke to Downes about the spirituals and freedom songs contained in the album “Some of These Days.” The conversation began with one of the oldest of Black spirituals, “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”

James Baker: This is the opening track of Lara's recently released “Some of These Days,” a collection of spirituals and freedom songs, many of which were sung by her activist parents at Civil Rights rallies in the 60s.


James: How is it that these same songs of loss, oppression and rights still resonate today? It can weigh heavy on us all . . . I know we go out and sing, as your parents once did, We Shall Overcome, but how do you as an artist contribute to the dialogue?


Lara Downes: Yeah, yeah. It's funny as an artist, you know this on a very deep level, that music creates connections. Music opens up minds and hearts. You know, this. You experience it all the time. But in a moment like this, when people's minds are so, you know, under siege and our hearts are so heavy and you feel the full power of that. It's kind of shocking. It's kind of enlightening. You know, it makes you really understand why we do what we do.


James: Lara Downes, playing over a John and Ruby Lomax field recording of 1939, or thereabouts, of “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” Lara, will you tell us about the new album, “Some of These Days”?


Lara: That's my my latest album "Some of These Days" went back deeper into spirituals and, you know, the door at the place where Dvorak comes into American history really goes back to Harry T. Burleigh, who was, you know, an early composer, African-American composer and arranger of spirituals who introduced spirituals to Dvorak. So, you know, we kind of have this torch getting passed around and it gets passed back and forth between, you know, black artists and and white artists. And it is really what sets us on the path that takes us forward through all kinds of American music and the kind of blended histories that we're used to hearing in our music.



James: Alphonso Horne, trumpet, with pianist Lara Downes with the Harry T. Burleigh spiritual “My Lord, What a Morning” or as Alec Wilder might have said . . . “OH LORD” . . . and speaking of Alec Wilder . . . We haven't had a chance yet, but I can't let you go without asking about your “Billie Holiday Songbook.”


Lara: Well, that was a project that really did, you know, trace back to my childhood and to my memories of my dad, because some of my earliest memories of him are musical memories. He loved music and loved listening to music. And I just remember sitting with him on the big chair in the living room and listening to, you know, records, old vinyl records, and old jazz records were just kind of part of my childhood soundtrack. So I did the Billie Holiday project when it was the 100th anniversary of her birth. What is that? I think 2015 it was? And I just, it was an opportunity for me to realize the breadth of the influences that I have as a musician. You know, I think that that's something . . . it kind of unveils itself as your life goes on because, you know, of course, you have this long, intensive period of study where you're working directly with teachers and they're telling you what to do and they're shaping you in some really fundamental ways. But on top of that, you also have everything else that's floating in and out of your consciousness and your ears, you know, from your earliest days. And I realized there were some really important things that I had learned from those old records, you know, some things about phrasing and some things about color and kind of just like pushing and stretching things that I do very instinctively. I think my playing is very much a singing kind of playing. And so it was great to go back to that music and kind of reinterpret her songs as a pianist and take the text away, of course, but I tried to still transmit the essence of the text through the music, which I think is something that she did in her singing, too, because you know, to me, the text is always secondary with her. She's always expressing herself really much more through the shapes and the colors that she's making with her voice.


James: I know you're trained as a classical player, but there's something about your playing of these Billie Holiday songs that sounds natural, not stilted as is sometimes the case when we classically trained musician find a different music in front of us.


Lara: My arranger on that project was Jed Distler, who's a fabulous pianist himself and just a really, really sensitive composer and arranger. And we worked really closely because, yeah, unfortunately my classical training kind of ruined me as an improviser, although that's one of the things I mean, I should be taking this time to kind of dive into trying to improvise more, but somehow that's not coming out of this time. I wish I had more flexibility that way. But no, everything was, you know, was composed. And Jed worked so beautifully with me. Just I think, you know, knowing my voice as a pianist, I didn't want to try to really, you know, imitate anyone else. I think there were influences that came in. I think there's some you know, some Bill Evans that comes in.


James: Absolutely.


Lara: Yeah. I mean, when I do play in that style, I think it's pretty clear where I align better, you know, which parts of the jazz piano spectrum feel more comfortable to me. But I think he you know, mostly it was just about Lady Day and really trying to imagine what her sound would do on the piano.


James: “Billie's Blues,” from Lara Downes album of 2015 called “The Billie Holiday Songbook.” Thanks so much, Lara, for taking the time to talk to me. I hope we can do this again soon.


Lara: Yes, absolutely. It's great to talk to you.


James first introduced himself to KPAC listeners at midnight on April 8, 1993, presenting Dvorak's 7th Symphony played by the Cleveland Orchestra. Soon after, he became the regular overnight announcer on KPAC.