Black Notes Matter: Lara Downes’ America Again


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The lovely cover photo for this album by San Francisco born pianist Lara Downes is reminiscent of any number of socially conscious folk/rock stars of the 60s and 70s. It would seem that this is no accident.  This delightful album of short pieces by a wide variety of American composers takes its title from the Langston Hughes (1902-1967) poem, Let America Be America Again (1935).  By so doing the pianist places this interesting selection of short piano pieces firmly in the context of black racial politics and the artistic expression of black America as well as those influenced by this vital vein of American culture (both musical and literary).  It is a graceful and deeply felt effort and I hope that the metaphor of the title of my review is not too tortured a one to reflect that.

This is also a very personal album.  Downes seems to share some deeply felt connections with her materials.  This artist, born to a white mother and a black father, invokes a careful selection of short piano pieces steeped sometimes in jazz and blues but also the political directness (and optimism) which was characteristic of the inter-war years that brought forth the Hughes poem.  There is both sadness and celebration in these virtuosic and technically demanding little gems (most apparently recorded for the first time or at least the first time in a while).  The pianist’s comments on each individual piece are also critical to the understanding of this disc as she shares the impact and meaning that the music has had for her.

There are 21 tracks by 19 composers in all and the selections themselves are quite a feat. They range from the 19th to the 21st centuries and are composed by both men and women of a variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds.  All seem to share the sort of  populist charm befitting the idealized America yearned for in the poem which is to say that they represent a kind of idealized or hopeful nationalism.  Downes is well acquainted with a large variety of American music and recognizes no distinction between classical and so-called “vernacular” traditions.

In fact none of these things are atypical for this artist.  Her previous albums Exiles Cafe (2013) featured music by composers exiled from their homelands, A Billie Holiday Songbook (2015) celebrated the life of this iconic black artist and her American Ballads (2001) demonstrated her deep mastery and affection for populist (but not jingoistic) nationalism.  Her tastefully issue oriented albums define a very individual path and the present album appears to be a very logical and well executed next entry into her discography.

This disc shares a similar heritage to that of Alan Feinberg’s four discs on Argo/Decca entitled, The American Innovator, The American Virtuoso, The American Romantic and Fascinating Rhythm: American Syncopation.  Another notable antecedent is Natalie Hinderas’ groundbreaking two disc set of music by African-American composers.

And now on to the music:

Morton Gould (1913-1996) was a Pulitzer Prize winning composer and conductor with a style informed by his study of jazz and blues in a vein similar to that of Bernstein and Copland.  He is represented here by American Caprice (1940).

Lou Harrison (1917-2003)  was a composer, conductor and teacher.  He was a modernist and an innovator in the promotion of non-western musical cultures.  His New York Waltzes (1944-1994) are three brief essays in that dance form.

The traditional folk song Shenandoah (apparently in the pianist’s transcription) is next.   This tune will be familiar to most listeners as a popular selection by choral groups and the melody is a common metaphor for things American.

Amy Marcy Cheney Beach (1867-1944) was one of the first successful female American composers.  Her “From Blackbird Hills” Op. 83 (1922) is representative of her late romantic style and her incorporation of Native American (Omaha) elements in her music.

Samuel Coleridge-Taylor (1875-1912) is a English composer with Creole roots, a black composer, known as the “African Mahler” in his day.  Deep River (1905) is his setting of this spiritual which also was one of Marian Anderson’s signature pieces.

Dan Visconti (1982- ) was commissioned by the International Beethoven Festival to write his Lonesome Roads Nocturne (2013) for Lara Downes.  It receives its world premiere recording in this collection.

Swiss-American composer and teacher Ernest Bloch (1880-1959) is certainly deserving of more attention.  His At Sea (1922) is used here to represent the sea voyages of the many immigrants (willing and unwilling) whose journey defined in part who they were.

George Gershwin (1898-1937) mastered both the vernacular tradition (as one of the finest song writers of the 20th Century) and the classical tradition in his too few compositions written in his sadly abbreviated life.  His opera Porgy and Bess (1935) is contemporary with the Langston Hughes poem mentioned earlier.  Downes most arrestingly chooses the arrangement of “I loves you, Porgy” by the classically trained iconic singer, musician and civil rights activist Nina Simone (1933-2003).  Quoting from Downes’ notes (Nina Simone expresses what she knew) “…about being a woman, being black and about being strong and powerless all at the same time.”  Indeed one of the most potent lines of the Hughes poem reads, “America was never America to me.”

Angelica Negrón (1981- ) was born in Puerto Rico and  now lives and works in New York. Her Sueno Recurrente (Recurring Dream, 2002) is a lovely little nocturne which is here given its world premiere.

Leonard Bernstein (1918-1990) held credentials as composer, conductor, teacher and ardent civil rights supporter.  His Anniversary for Stephen Sondheim (1988) is one of a series of Anniversary piano pieces he wrote.  Bernstein did much to help modern audiences (including this reviewer) comprehend the vital musicality of jazz and blues. Like Downes, he drew little distinction between popular and classical and celebrated all the music he believed was good.

David Sanford (1963- ) is a trombonist, teacher and composer who works in both classical and jazz idioms.  His work Promise (2009) was written for Downes and this is the world premiere recording.

Howard Hanson (1896-1981) was a conductor, teacher and Pulitzer Prize winning composer (though not at all an advocate of ragtime, jazz or blues).  His brief but lovely piano piece Slumber Song (1915) is a nice discovery and one hopes that it will be taken up by more pianists.

Scott Joplin (1867/68-1917) was discovered largely due to the scholarship and recordings of musicologist Joshua Rifkin (who incidentally did some arrangements for folkie Judy Collins) whose three volumes of piano rags on Nonesuch records introduced this wonderful black composer’s work to a wider audience once again.  Marvin Hamlisch famously incorporated Joplin’s music into his score for the motion picture The Sting (1973).  Downes chooses the Gladiolus Rag (1907) to represent this composer.

Irving Berlin (born Israel Isidore Baline 1888-1989) is another of the greatest song composers this country has produced.  In another characteristically clever choice Downes chooses the arrangement of this hugely optimistic song, “Blue Skies”(1926) by the great jazz pianist Art Tatum (1909-1956).

Florence Price (1887-1953) was a black female composer (the first to have one of her orchestral works programmed by a major symphony orchestra) whose work is only recently getting some much needed exposure.  Her Fantasy Negre (1929) is based on a spiritual, “Sinner, Please Don’t Let This Harvest Pass”.  Price was involved in the New Negro Arts Movement of the Harlem Renaissance and was professionally connected with Langston Hughes among others.

Aaron Copland (1900-1990) is perhaps the most iconic American composer.  Dubbed the “Dean of American Composers” his earliest work has strong jazz influences and his later work created the American romantic/nationalist sound incorporating folk songs and rhythms.  For this recording the artist chose the first of the composer’s Four Piano Blues (1926) which also appeared on her 2001 album of American Ballads.

Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington (1899-1974) was a composer and band leader whose sound virtually defined the Harlem Renaissance during his tenure at the famed Cotton Club.  Melancholia (1959) is the piece chosen here, again a nice little discovery.

Roy Harris (1898-1979) was, like Copland, a populist but the Oklahoma born composer studied Native American music as well as American folk songs.  His American Ballads (1946) was included on Downes’ American Ballads album.  Here she includes an unpublished work from a projected (but never finished) American Ballads Volume II.  This piece is a setting of the spiritual, “Lil Boy Named David”.

The album concludes with one of the ultimate hopeful dreamer songs, Harold Arlen’s (1905-1986) Over the Rainbow (1939) from his score for The Wizard of Oz (1939).  The adolescent yearning of Dorothy for something better than her dust bowl farm life touched a chord in many over the years and it is a fitting conclusion to this beautiful and hopeful collection.

As mentioned earlier the insightful liner notes by Lara Downes complement this production and tactfully position its politics.  She shares a personal journey that is as American as the proverbial apple pie.  The album is dedicated to the artist’s ancestors in recognition of their struggles as well as to her children in hopes that dreams for a better future can become their reality.

This beautiful sound of this album is the result of work of Producer Dan Merceruio and Executive Producer Collin J. Rae along with Daniel Shores and David Angell.  The lovely photography is by Rik Keller and as with the previous release Skylark: Crossing Over (reviewed here) the graphic design by Caleb Nei deserves special mention for its ability to truly complement this disc.

It is scheduled for release on October 28, 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A shamanic effort to raise consciousness and further socially progressive ideas.

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Far Famed Tim Rayborn Takes on the Vikings


Close your eyes and listen intently in the darkened hall.  From the back of the hall comes first a growling gutteral sound in an unfamiliar language.  This is followed by beats on a drum and the sound of a rattle.

Slowly the primitive creature comes up the center aisle growling, chanting, reciting and playing his drum and rattle moving slowly towards the stage and into view in the light.

He is seated on the stage and continues his chanting, speaking and playing.

He is playing unfamiliar instruments and telling unfamiliar stories.

There is both precision and passion in his playing and reciting.

Tim Rayborn is a resident of Berkeley, a multi-instrumentalist, singer and performer, familiar to local audiences in both his solo performances and with his group Canconiér.  His area of focus is authentic performance of music and poetry of the middle ages and before.

But how does one determine the authenticity especially as one goes further back in time and finds fewer records and accounts of how these performances sounded?  In the pre-concert lecture Mr. Rayborn spoke of this project, ‘The Far Famed Ones-Music and Poetry of the Vikings’.  He told the audience that there are no scores of this music and, like the languages in which the poetry was written, we have only the barest clues as to how these things must have sounded some 1000 years ago.

The clues, he explained, come from archaeology, linguistics and a few extant bare threads of oral tradition…there are pieces, an immense puzzle that some scholars say can’t or shouldn’t be solved.  But Rayborn asserts that these puzzles, if not able to be completely solved, are worth time to approximate the answers.

In a very real way this music, this performance is entirely new comprised of minimal facts, educated scholarship, conjecture.  No one can ever know what this body of work sounded like without travelling back in time to hear it.  Failing that we have the laborious work of Rayborn and his fellow scholars attempting to piece together an approximation of this work, not unlike the re-creation of dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (albeit without the attendant dangers)…a few pieces of evidence held together with educated guesses producing something new, an opportunity to hear these reconstructions of music and ritual as it may have existed those thousand years ago.

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The stories and poetry, like the music are very different from what we think of when we use those terms today.  The performance of these poems integrating music were a medium of entertainment and communication in a pre-literate society.  They varied greatly from one performance to the next dependent on the performers choices.  Even the musical instruments varied in style and construction.

In a sense, all performance is an approximation.  Any musical score or performance text require interpretation and vary from one performance to the next dependent on the artists’ choices.  But choices are more limited in work whose performance practices and directions for performance are more completely communicated and understood.

With this work Tim Rayborn reaches further back than almost anyone has into the darkness of the dark ages to attempt to illuminate some portion of these traditions that would later evolve into poetry, prose and musical compositions.  The Viking Age lasted from the 790s to the Norman Conquest of 1066.  And while history knows this era for its battles and plunders it was not devoid of culture.

Rayborn is an affable, genial man who is first a serious scholar and a performer second.  He speaks with great precision leaving as little ambiguity as possible as one finds with serious academics.  His joy and enthusiasm, love for this work combine with that scholarship to make his performances a riveting experience.

He described this performance (January 27th, 2013) at the little church hall in Albany as a ‘work-in-progress’ evolving over time, being tweaked with each new performance to reflect the scholarship and the instincts of the experienced performer.  Rayborn is part scholar, part musician and part actor.  He is as serious, precise and joyous in each of these endeavors.

Following the opening comments there was a brief intermission which led into the performance without interruption (as the performer requested) of all the pieces on the program.

What followed was an integrated program of performance, poetry, song and music making of perhaps one hour’s duration.  There was drama and humor in this entertaining mix.  The audience sat respectful and engaged to the end when Rayborn stepped out of character to acknowledge the conclusion.  And the far-famed ones came just a little bit closer.

The audience stood applauding loudly this ‘new’ old music dredged from the darkness of the ages like relics recovered from a peat bog, and restored as best as anyone can to most closely resemble what they originally were.  What was once thought lost to time has now been restored.