A Billie Holiday Songbook (CD review)

Lara Downes, solo piano. Steinway & Sons 30026.

Practically everybody knows who Billie Holiday was. Perhaps not as many people know Lara Downes. So, a little about both of them.

Billie Holiday (1915-1959) was an American jazz singer and songwriter, dubbed "Lady Day" by her friend and musical partner Lester Young. Ms. Holiday had a strong influence on jazz (and pop), her singing style, largely inspired by jazz players, beginning an innovative way of handling tempo changes and phrasing. During her heyday in the 1930's, 1940's, and 50's she toured and recorded with Teddy Wilson, Count Basie, Artie Shaw, and Paul Whiteman, among others, culminating in both legal troubles and sold-out concerts at Carnegie Hall. She was, and remains, an American icon.

Lara Downes is a Steinway artist whose work exhibits an exceptionally lyric and dramatic presence. Born in San Francisco of Caribbean and Russian heritage, Ms. Downes began piano lessons at age four and later "spent a decade studying and performing with her sisters in Europe, in what she calls 'a gypsy-like existence' that took the family from Paris to Venice, Vienna, Basel and Rome."

Since making concert debuts at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, London, the Vienna Konzerthaus, and the Salle Gaveau, Paris, Ms. Downes "has won over audiences on the world's stages, including Carnegie Hall, Kennedy Center, and Lincoln Center." What's more, her recordings have won her new fans all over the world, with excellent critical and public acclaim. My own reactions to her previous albums Some Other Time (with cellist Zuill Bailey), 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg, and Exiles' Cafe have been uniformly favorable, Ms. Downes impressing me with her imagination, playfulness, and straightforward, unadorned virtuosity.

On A Billie Holiday Songbook, Ms Downes plays twenty-two songs made famous by Billie Holiday, most of them arranged for piano by Jed Distler, one by Teddy Wilson ("Blue Moon"), and one by Marian McPartland ("Willow Weep for Me"). Here's the track list:

  1. "Yesterdays"
  2. "God Bless the Child"
  3. "Blue Moon"
  4. "Willow Weep for Me"
  5. "Don't Explain"
  6. "Body and Soul"
  7. "I Don't Stand a Ghost of a Chance with You"
  8. "I Wished on the Moon"
  9. "Them There Eyes"
10. "Billie's Blues"
11. "Good Morning Heartache"
12. "The End of a Love Affair"
13. "What a Little Moonlight Can Do"
14. "Ain't Nobody's Business"
15. "Strange Fruit"
16. "I'll Be Seeing You"
17. "Lover Man"
18. "I'm a Fool to Want You"
19. "I'll Be Around"
20. "I Cover the Waterfront"
21. "(In My) Solitude"
22. "But Beautiful"

Lara Downes
As always, Ms. Downes plays each piece lovingly, caressingly, soulfully. I suppose one could say that it is something of overkill to have a classical concert pianist play popular tunes, but when you hear the results, you have to concede that no one could do them any better. And for most of us music is music; we just want it rendered as well as possible, and that's what Ms. Downes does.

Favorites? Yep. "God Bless the Child" displays Ms. Downes's ability to convey a high emotional content along with an abundance of showmanship. "Blue Moon" is a perennial favorite, and in its original piano arrangement it projects a wonderfully upbeat yet bluesy quality nurtured by Ms. Downes's playing. "Body and Soul" is predictably fine, with the piano performance reflecting Ms. Holiday's vocal style remarkably well. We practically hear Holiday behind the piano.

"Billie's Blues" bubbles over with the kind of jazz mannerisms we've come to expect from Ms. Holiday herself. "Ain't Nobody's Business" is simply a favorite song of mine, so I was delighted to hear Ms. Downes do it such credit in a smoky nightclub style. "I'll Be Seeing You" is a song I personally associate more with Jimmy Durante than Billie Holiday, but in any case Ms. Downes gives it a sweet, lovely new life, as she does with all of these songs. It's a lovely album.

Producer Dan Merceruio and engineer Daniel Shores recorded the piano at Sono Luminus Studios, Boyce, Virginia in June 2014. As usual, we can depend on good sound from Sono Luminus. The piano looms a bit larger and closer than I anticipated, but it's comfortably warm and natural, with a mild room resonance making it appear rich and powerful. Although I would have preferred a tad more distance and a little more definition, there is no denying the instrument's presence and impact.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor ofThe $ensible Soundmagazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa