Women Wonders: Pianist Lara Downes “Un-Blocks” History With EP Releases Highlighting Women Who Have Shaped All Music

On my journalistic path to “Un-Block The Music,” I have discovered my dislike for 2-minute snippets delivered on the news morning shows. What do we actually learn? My desire to widen the scope of knowledge, is the first thing I found in common with pianist Lara Downes. Lara said, “I am driven by my own curiosity to look deeper” into the history of music; witness her label, Rising Sun Music which features music by black composers spanning 200 years.  More on that later.

I am almost ashamed to admit that I only recently discovered Lara’s work when she recorded “Happiness Is Just A Thing Called Joe” with Melissa Errico in honor of President Joe Biden. https://unblockthemusic.blog/2020/10/28/check-out-happiness-is-just-a-thing-called-joe-a-new-release-from-melissa-errico-lara-downes-in-support-of-broadway-for-biden/. It was sort of a musical collision between classical music and musical theater. While Lara has never performed a musical perse, she said, her “performance style” is communicative. Lara and Melissa’s mutual friend, writer, Adam Gopnik introduced the two knowing they would “click.”

Lara told me she loves how all kinds of music intersects; where jazz meets classical; where classical meets American Songbook, and so on. Alas, it is the reason I started “Un-Block The Music.” And, she feels strongly that “we see how all of the pieces of music come together. Music represents who we are. Music gives us insight to our journeys.” She points to the necessity of seeing similarities in each other and how we come together as a society.  And, it is important for little girls to have role models.

Lara said she was determined to look long and hard to find women, especially women of color who have shaped the music we listen to today. Music training (like many parts of society) has a dense tradition of men, particularly when you get to the advanced stages, she said. In a time when strong women were not necessarily celebrated, “It blows my mind to realize women like Billie Holiday, Nina Simone and Barbra Streisand got people to listen to them. There was just something urgent in their work that got people to pay attention.” Still a truth today; that urgency and need to get the message out. “I feel strongly that we need role models that represent the story of who we are. Music can guide us through life,” she said.

On her label, Rising Sun Music, Lara plans to release an EP a month celebrating specific themes: Remember Me to Harlem (February), Phenomenal Women (March), and Spring Fever (April). The releases are meant to reframe the history of classical music by embracing the diversity of its origins and expanding the inclusivity of its future “facing the rising sun of our new day begun.”

Here are the first three:

Released earlier this month was, Remember Me To Harlem featuring

Benny Golson: Classical Dreams — Lara Downes, piano
Eubie Blake: Love Will Find A Way — Lara Downes, piano
William Grant Still: Song for the Lonely — Lara Downes, piano and Titus Underwood, oboe
Margaret Bonds/Langston Hughes: When the Dove Enters In — Lara Downes, piano and Davóne Tines, bass-baritone

Next up on March 5 is Phenomenal Women spotlighting the music of Black women composers: 

Hazel Scott: Peace of Mind — Lara Downes, piano
Margaret Bonds: What Lips My Lips Have Kissed — Lara Downes, piano and Nicole Cabell, soprano
Nora Holt: Negro Dance — Lara Downes, piano
Florence Price: Andante con Espressione — Lara Downes, piano and Rachel Barton Pine, violin

Then in April 2 comes Spring Fever which includes:

Betty Jackson King: Spring Intermezzo — Lara Downes, piano
Nkeiru Okoye: When Young Spring Comes — Lara Downes, piano
H. Leslie Adams: L’extase d’amour — Lara Downes, piano and Jordan Bak, viola
Alvin Singleton: Changing Faces — Lara Downes, piano

On another positive note, Lara definitely sees a light at the end of the pandemic tunnel with planned live performances this summer all over the country, from Chicago to Rhode Island to South Carolina. “We’ve got to get back to playing music,” she said.

A lot more is coming from Lara, but before you move forward, “Un-Block The Music” also recommends you listen to Lara’s Sony Masterworks pre-pandemic recording of Hole In The Sky with guest artists, Judy Collins, violinist Rachel Barton Pine, pianist Simone Dinnerstein, cellist Ifetayo Ali-Landing, and the urban youth vocal ensemble Musicality. The album caught my eye before catching my ear because the title comes from a 1916 Georgia O’Keefe quote “I want real things – live people to take hold of – to see – and to talk to – Music that makes holes in the sky.”

“Un-Block The Music” says “Amen To That.”

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