Lady Swings The Blues
How Grammy-nominated pianist Lynne Arriale always finds the groove and makes the ivories sing.
Thursday, April 11, 2002
Photo: Melody Maker-At the root of Lynne Arriale''s musical philosophy is a deep appreciation for melody and meaning. "It''s not just a line; it''s not just a shape. It''s a feeling," she says.
Writing about her previous seven albums, jazz critics have universally agreed that Lynne Arriale is a remarkably "lyrical" player. When music writers use that word, they want us to know that the music is melodic, but also more than melodic. They say "lyrical" to describe music that seems to speak, as though it had words. Her tunes, and her interpretations of other people''s tunes, don''t sound like someone playing notes; Lynne Arriale''s music sings.
This quality stems partly from her classical training. Playing the classical canon expertly, she says, is about "singing the melody in a certain way." She repeats something an early teacher told her: "The voice is the first instrument."
Later, when she first encountered jazz, listening to Bud Powell and Cedar Walton, Arriale learned an even deeper lesson-one that ultimately encouraged her to abandon Mozart for Monk.
"I realized that it''s all just music," she says. "There are so many colors-not just major or minor, up-tempo or slow. It''s really all about feeling. That''s the idea of a melody. It''s not just a line; it''s not just a shape. It''s a feeling. And it''s something we all can feel."
Speaking on the telephone from her home studio in Nashville, Indiana (in Brown County, "a hilly place; a special place"), Arriale says she is after "charismatic melodies," music that has a "memorable" quality. When she talks about what gives a tune meaning, she sounds more like a poet or novelist than a piano player.
"I could play the same five notes five different ways, and only one of them would make you say, ''Oh yeah-that''s melodic,''" she says. "That means something. That''s what I''m striving for. Melodies with the charisma of a great book or a great story."
Her version of the Duke Ellington classic "It Don''t Mean a Thing (If It Ain''t Got That Swing)," which has been in heavy rotation on jazz radio stations from coast to coast since its release nine weeks ago, has that kind of narrative resonance.
Arriale plays the familiar song in a totally new way. First she takes Ellington''s up-tempo big-band arrangement and slows it down to a crawl. She plays it as a slow blues, with a deep groove that nevertheless still swings. Then she takes the chorus (the part of the song that goes, "do daht, do daht, do daht, do daht, do daht, do daht, do daht, do daht") and messes with the rhythm.
"We bend the time, and make it kind of rubbery," she explains. And here, in place of one of the most simple, recognizable riffs in the jazz canon, she plays the wrong notes-just a little off, still familiar-sounding, and hauntingly pretty.
"To me, it''s kind of humorous," she says. "It''s kind of tongue-in-cheek.
"Part of the humor comes from not playing it with the swing feel, but still managing to create that grooviness. And then it''s so slow, you don''t know what''s going to happen next. The audience is going, ''W-W-Wait a second . Are they gonna play that next note?'' So you create expectations, and then you don''t do what they expect. That tickles a funnybone."
And it does more than that.
"If you create a moment when nothing happens, then the next moment has great fragility," she says. "The next sound is precious." She invokes a television commercial to explain the phenomenon: "If you want to get someone''s attention-whisper."
There is some whispering, and also some shouting, on Arriale''s recent, unlikely hit album, Inspiration. A collection of melodies from some of her favorite writers, from Monk to Bacharach to McCartney, the record opens with Leonard Bernstein''s "America" (from West Side Story) and closes with Abdullah Ibrahim''s "Mountain of the Night." The showy Broadway number is jazzed up and improvised to its full free-blown potential, which sounds built-in; the Ibrahim meditation is no less stripped-down than the original, but here, at its emotional core, clearly, is a modern American woman.
The other songs on the album-McCartney''s "Blackbird," Bacharach''s "This House is Not A Home," Monk''s "Bemesha Swing," and a half-dozen other inspired selections-possess the same loyalty to melody and commitment to personal expression. As with Arriale''s previous work, they offer pleasures both intellectual and aesthetic.
Her colleagues in this endeavor, the players in her rhythm section, are brilliant. (Arriale does her best work with her trio.) Drummer Steve Davis, her partner for the past 12 years, has an appropriately lyrical take on his instrument, and seems to drive each song into particularly melodic places. Bassist Jay Anderson, who has appeared on five of her records, lays down the groove by playing inventive bottom harmonies, and his solos are brief, brilliant melodies of their own. The result is like a friend urging you to a new, happy realization-like an epiphany.
"We''re not playing by the rules," Arriale says. "We''re just trying to play with passion and love and enthusiasm, just going for that moment that says, ''Yeah, this is where I want to be right now.''"
The Lynne Arriale Trio plays at the Jazz & Blues Company, 236 Crossroads, Carmel, on Saturday at 7:30pm. $35. 624-6431.