Lara Downes, piano – A Billie Holiday Songbook – Steinway & Sons

Lara Downes, piano – A Billie Holiday Songbook – Steinway & Sons 30026, 64:33 ***:

Lara Downes is a classical pianist of some renown, who on the entenary of the birth of Billie Holiday, put together a songbook of those signature compositions that were associated with the singer. There are only a few classically-trained musicians, such as pianist André Previn, who have managed a transition from that form to jazz/pop. Downes has attempted to navigated these shoals, avoiding any major calamities.

Solo piano playing is a tricky affair. For the artist, there is no place to hide and they are dependent on their skills to carry the performance. Classical musicians have somewhat of an advantage as they come prepared. They have memorized the scores of the compositions, and are not expected to play any extemporaneous notes. Jazz musicians on the other hand, need to rely of their improvisational skills without the benefit of bass and drums to help fill the gaps, or cover misplayed notes.

As for Lara Downes, she is a superb technical pianist given her musical education. The session is wonderfully recorded on a Steinway piano that every jazz pianist would envy. The twenty-two pieces chosen are played beautifully but with little heart. There are no nuanced interpretations of Holiday’s vocal characteristics. And perhaps that should not have been expected.

While Holiday might not be present in these tracks, there are some fine moments. “Good Morning Heartache” although not bluesy in style, has a luminescence that captures the spirit of the composition and even offers a musical quote from “I’m A Fool To Want You”. Downes shows a slightly swinging flair in “What A Little Moonlight Can Do” and on “I Cover The Waterfront” she comes close to capturing Billie’s essence.

This is a well-intentioned tribute to Billie Holiday on her centenary.  However,  there are bound to be other albums which might be closer to the ethos of the singer’s vocals, and so it may be preferable to wait and see what appears in the time ahead.

TrackList: Yesterdays; God Bless The Child; Blue Moon; Willow Weep For Me; Don’t Explain; Body And Soul; I Don’t Stand A Ghost Of A Chance With You; I Wished On The Moon; Them There Eyes; Billie’s Blues; Good Morning Heartache; The End Of A Love Affair; What A Little Moonlight Can Do; Ain’t Nobody’s Business; Strange Fruit; I’ll Be Seeing You; Lover Man; I’m A Fool To Want You; I’ll Be Around; I Cover The Waterfront; (In My) Solitude; But Beautiful

—Pierre Giroux

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