Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Lara Downes, America Again

"Let America be America again," wrote Langston Hughes in 1938. It was an America in Depression, facing war, an America where the color of your skin, your religion, your class or your ethnicity set you apart as an "undesirable," yet an America where all dreamed of better. We've come a ways since that time. Now some of us seek to "make America great again," yet what that means divides us, in that there is in one camp a kind of pre-FDR or at least a pre-present vision of a time when there truly was despair, just as perhaps there is now, where some prospered while others went without. Do we really want that again? Or do we want that to continue? All will say no, but how, then? Where, then are we headed? What will power do for the powerless?

Pianist Lara Downes pays tribute to the Hughes vision and Martin Luther King's Dream in a volume of beautiful Americana on America Again (Sono Luminus  92207). It is a music of hope and despair born of those terrible years and perhaps a bit before, folk songs like "Shenandoah," classical modern works that have the earthiness of outdoor and everyday America by Morton Gould, Aaron Copland, Roy Harris and select others, and choice Jazz-Afro-American classics by Duke Ellington ("Melancholia"), Scott Joplin ("Gladiolus Rag"), or the hybrid of Jazz-Popular, like Nina Simone's arrangement of George Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy," and Art Tatum's arrangement of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies."

We find in all this music a world surely not "great" for those who were its victims. Yet the music is touching, beautiful, transcendent.

So rhis is an album with a program, in the literal sense. It is music with a message of hope, music written when that was most needed. It celebrates an America where many concerned themselves with articulating the so-called American Dream, and at the same time set about devising means to make it so.

The music goes beyond all that to express its own value, AS MUSIC. Lara Downes does a marvelous job making of this music a pianistic triumph. To her we must tip our collective hats in appreciation. For the music wears wonderfully well in her hands. Bravo!

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