This Friday Sono Luminus will release pianist Lara Downes’ latest solo album. As is usually the case, Amazon.com is currently accepting pre-orders for those who can’t wait. The title of the album is America Again, which was taken from the poem “Let America Be America Again,” written in 1938 by Langston Hughes. While it is all too easy to associate the phrase with the current election-year climate (particularly since Hughes was never one to mince words on matters of politics and race), it is worth noting that America has long been a dominant theme in the recordings Downes has made. Thus, there is her American Ballads album, which dates back to 2001, and her far more recent A Billie Holiday Songbook, released in March of 2015. For that matter, almost all of the composers represented on her 2011 album 13 Ways of Looking at the Goldberg are American; and many of the exiles in her Exiles’ Cafe album found their exile in the United States. In other words Downes has built up a recital repertoire through which she has become a champion of American composers, both those born here and those who made this country their second home. The title of her new album basically reassures us that she is still at it.
None of this is intended to dismiss the Hughes connection to this album. Over the course of twenty compositions, Downes’ album offers a perspective of the American dream that, like Hughes poetry, acknowledges its elusive qualities. As a result, most (but not all) of the composers included constitute departures from the mainstream at such a distance that most of us need to be reminded just who they were. Thus, the album includes Samuel Coleridge-Taylor’s arrangement of “Deep River,” from a more extensive volume he compiled of solo piano arrangements of African American spirituals. Closer to the present is “Sueno Recurrente,” composed in 2002 by Angélica Negrón, born in Puerto Rico and now living in Brooklyn. Other female composers on the album include Amy Beach (“From Blackbird Hills”) and Florence Price (“Fantasie Negre”).
This is not to suggest that all of the tracks are likely to be unfamiliar to most listeners. Scott Joplin is there with his “Gladiolus Rag;” and the final track is Harold Arlen’s “Over the Rainbow.” However, there are also some arrangements that definitely deserve special attention. “I Loves You Porgy” from George Gershwin’s only opera Porgy and Bess, is included but in an arrangement by Nina Simone. Similarly, Downes chose to play Art Tatum’s arrangement of Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” I have to confess that, as a listener, I cannot get enough of Tatum; but I feel the same way about Lou Harrison. So the inclusion of his set of three New York Waltzes was a personal delight.
This afternoon at Old St. Mary’s Cathedral, Downes was the Noontime Concerts (“San Francisco’s Musical Lunch Break”) recitalist. She used the occasion to preview two of the tracks from America Again. The first of these was the “Deep River,” preceded by the explanation that Coleridge-Taylor was an English composer (without emphasizing the Creole side of his ancestry). Thus, his interest in African American spirituals could be compared with Béla Bartók seeking out folk music from Romania and other eastern European lands to add to the sources he had gathered from Hungary. Coleridge-Taylor’s style, however, is closer to Franz Liszt than to Bartók; and Downes’ account of his rich approach to embellishment and invention was highly absorbing.
By way of contrast, she then turned to the first track on her album, Morton Gould’s “American Caprice.” There was no mistaking the sassy “American” qualities of this music from a man who, in his day, was more frequently associated with music for programs broadcast on both radio and television. However, his roots go back to Tin Pan Alley and a versatility that enabled him to do just about anything to pick up wages during the Great Depression.
Downes then turned to Gould’s “elder,” George Gershwin. (As a conductor Gould became a great champion of Gershwin’s “serious” music.) She played the arrangement for solo piano that Gershwin himself made of his score for “Rhapsody in Blue.” This has a few departures from the original version, none of which mar the thoroughly American spirit of this music, which seems to be able to survive anything, even being mangled by United Airlines. This is also music that Downes recorded; and her “singles” release is still available for download from Amazon.com. She then remained with Gershwin for her encore, performing that Simone arrangement of “I Loves You Porgy.”
Finally, it is worth noting that Coleridge-Taylor’s somewhat Lisztian approach to “Deep River” was given an unabashedly nineteenth-century “overture.” Downes began her recital with four of the short pieces that Robert Schumann collected in his Opus 12 Fantasiestücke (fantasy pieces). These were given accounts that were appropriately expressive, thus setting the context for Coleridge-Taylor’s own rhetorical stance, while also “phasing in” the audience with a more familiar bill of fare.