That’s the ticket
What: Lara Downes, premiering a Billie Holiday-inspired concert project, “But Beautiful”
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, May 17, 2 p.m. Sunday, May 18
Where: Mondavi Center for the Performing Arts
Tickets: $46 general, $19 students; www.mondaviarts.org, 530-754-2787
When pianist Lara Downes was a girl of 7, she took classes on Saturdays at the San Francisco Conservatory. After class, Lara and her sisters would dress up in their mom’s party dresses, pick out a few albums from their parents’ collection and dance around the living room.
“We excavated the Beatles records, the Sinatra albums, Charles Aznavour, Barbra Streisand, Nat King Cole … and Billie Holiday. And I fell in love with (Holiday’s) dark eyes shaded by the white gardenia, with her wonderful, world-worn voice, and with what I knew — even then — to be the totally, startlingly distinctive qualities of mood and phrasing, line and color that she brought to even the simplest tune.”
And now, years later, Downes will premiere a Billie Holiday-inspired “concert project” at the Mondavi Center on Saturday, May 17, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, May 18, at 2 p.m.
Titled “But Beautiful,” the program is “a cycle of solo piano concert transcriptions by my brilliant friend and colleague Jed Distler,” drawing on “the songs most strongly associated with Lady Day (as Holiday was known): “God Bless The Child,” which she wrote herself; “Good Morning Heartache”; “What a Little Moonlight Can Do”; “Violets for My Furs”; and Downes’ childhood favorite, “I Cover the Waterfront.”
“I’m playing sad songs, and bittersweet songs,” Downes said. “And powerful songs like ‘Strange Fruit,’ that most wrenching, most sorrowful, most audacious protest song — a condemnation of the lynching of African-Americans that was part of the violent racism that pervaded 1930s America.
“Many of these songs have been sung by dozens of great singers, from Sinatra to Aretha Franklin, but we best remember Billie Holiday’s inimitable versions,” said Downes, who has made her home in Davis for a decade or so. “She brought to them her one-of-a-kind inflection and intention, a certain bold imprint that is audacious, unexpected and unbelievably strong.
“Jed and I were hearing Billie sing as we translated these songs for the piano, using the range and color of the instrument to orchestrate the echo of her voice and its magic. To reinterpret these songs is a tremendous privilege, and also a challenge to memorialize without imitating, to transform while preserving, to bring different musical traditions together.”
Downes’ project is timed to coincide with the upcoming 100th anniversary of Billie Holiday’s birth (she was born on April 7, 1915). Downes has recorded the Holiday material for release on an album on the Steinway label (also titled “But Beautiful”) in early 2015.
The project is also personally important to Downes because of her family heritage.
“On my bedside table I have two studio photographs from the 1930s. They’re of my grandmothers,” Downes said.
“My grandmother Fay, one of seven sisters born to Jewish immigrants from the Ukraine, grew up in Buffalo (New York state), and then came out to California with my mother. And my Jamaican grandmother Ivy moved as a young woman to Harlem and died when my father was very small — her story is lost to family history and memory, except for the equation of nose and cheekbones that I see whenever I look in the mirror,” Downes said.
Holiday moved to Harlem in the 1930s as a young teen, and started singing in night clubs at a young age. She eventually became a vocalist with bands led by Count Basie and Artie Shaw. In the 1940s, she recorded many of the tunes for which she is now best remembered. But she was arrested several times for drug possession in the late 1940s and 1950s, her health declined, and she died in 1959 at age 44.
“Looking back 100 years at Billie Holiday’s short and troubled life, lived within the landscape of early 20th century American racial realities, I realize that I can’t begin to understand the scope of her personal and artistic struggles,” Downes said. “But I know that what happiness and luck she did find, she found through her music.
“And finding your joy, your strength, your power in music is something I do know about. And I know, too, about commanding a room as a woman in a satin dress, pulling the audience in, making a listener fall in love with a piece of music the way I fell in love with Billie Holiday’s songs when I was 8 years old.”
Tickets for these concerts are in short supply. They’re $46 general, $19 for UC Davis students, available at www.mondaviarts.org or 530-754-2787. Downes will hold a question-and-answer session with the audience after both performances.
— Reach Jeff Hudson at [email protected] or 530-747-8055.