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Lara Downes - A Billie Holiday Songbook / New Classical Tracks

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New Classical Tracks is a Syndicated Feature airing Nationally on Classical 24 & Statewide on Minnesota Public Radio. Listen to Julie Amacher's Feature with Lara Downes.

READ THE TRANSCRIPT - "I discovered Billie Holiday when I was a little girl. I have this strong memory of finding the records in my parents' collection and hearing her voice," says pianist Lara Downes, whose A Billie Holiday Songbook, features 22 jazz standards made famous by Holiday. "And I fell in love with her music and voice. And it's music that's been in my ear my whole life."

"It's funny of course, I'm a classical pianist but I think we become aware of how many different influences make up our musical vocabulary. It's really everything we hear and everything we love and it all blends together. I got to a point when I wanted to try to do something with all of that music that had taken root and her 100th birthday seems like a really nice time to do that."

Eleonora Fagan was born on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia. Her home life was chaotic, but it didn't dampen her ambitions to be a singer. She adopted a stage name after her favorite silent movie actress Billie Dove. Lara Downes says Holiday's distinctive voice has always been in her head, "And I think that Billie Holiday for me is a singer who represents not just the jazz tradition but something really powerful about the power of individuality. Her voice was so unique and what she did with it was so unique. That's the thing that connects her music to lots of other music I know that comes from different traditions - that very personal way she had of communicating with a listener. When I hear her songs, American standards, most of them, but the way she makes them specifically her own....those are things that translate I think across genres that have references and resonances with a lot of other music."

"I think in the classical tradition, we have a challenge. Most of what we play has been played so many times before. And we have a tremendous respect for the tradition and the history - that's paramount. And yet we have to find our own voice. That's a life–long process. And I think that it really comes down to just looking deep inside, pulling from a genuine place inside which is again what I think Billie did with her voice and music."

Lara's recording is a musical portrait told without words, a challenge she knew her friend and colleague Jed Distler could handle. "When I started thinking seriously about this Billie Holiday project, he was the first person I called. And he was so excited. And we talked for hours on the phone and started going through all of her songs and picking out the ones that would work the best. First and foremost, you're creating songs without words. You're taking out the text so there was sort of the...challenge of finding a way to translate the text through other medium. Through...expression of line and ... dynamic and phrasing and tempo...just the whole vocabulary of music without the words."

"Then there was the question of paying tribute to Billie Holiday without imitating capturing some of the inflections that are very much associated with her singing without doing some sort of a parody. I think that he found a way to honor Billie Holiday specifically, to honor the American songbook, to honor the tradition and the history of the piano, all in one package."

When Lara was just eight years old she noted in her diary that her favorite song was Billie Holiday's, 'I Cover the Waterfront,' "I think that there were a range of things that attracted me at that very young age. I think that her voice just captivated me at the beginning...and that song in particular...I mean, it's a beautiful song. It's a sad song. I think that my experience of life at that age was fairly sad - there were some sad things happening in my family and I think I was drawn to the idea that sadness could become something very beautiful. I think that's probably what it was. And that has stayed with me, always."

Not surprisingly, 'God Bless the Child,' is part of this Billie Holiday songbook. It's not just a signature song for Billie Holiday it's also one that she co–wrote, "But I think that that song for me is one of the songs that shows another side of Billie," Lara explains, "I think that one of the things that has happened over the years is that she's passed into icon status and the myth, the legend, that focuses on self–destruction and tragedy and this hard life that she led - I think sometimes gets in the way of the musicianship and the joy that she found in making music. And ‘God Bless the Child' for me is a very hopeful song and it's a very powerful song and so I think that it was important to me to capture that. The arrangement itself is one of the more bluesy takes on this music. And it's the first one that Jed did for me and I just knew we were off to a great start when I got that over my email."

'But Beautiful,' is the final song on this recording. For Lara, it speaks to why she wanted to create this beautiful portrait of Billie Holiday, "The text for that song - that was text I was sorry to lose. Those are words to live by - beautiful to take a chance, if you fall, you fall...and I'm thinking I wouldn't mind at all. And I think that that's true, whether it's in love or in life. Making this record for me was absolutely taking a chance. To do something so different...and to do it within the framework of a different tradition than mine and a tradition for which I have so much respect and admiration. And I was kind of prepared to fall. As it turns out, I don't think I have so it gives me really tremendous happiness about the possibility to do what you believe in, to do it well, to do it for all the right reasons, to do it with love and respect and give it out into the world and to make people happy. That's as good as it gets."