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photo by Andrew Lepley


This article appeared in Coda, Issue 302, March/April 2002

Lynne Arriale: Pianist & Composer

She opened her second set at the Jazz & Blues Company in Carmel, California with "Bemsha Swing"--Monk with a vengeance, amply demonstrating that she's at home with all forms of jazz and can richly interpret anybody's tunes. No easy task in the case of Monk, given the individuation that giant himself possessed, and the host of genres (from stride to blues to bop) he too had absorbed and transformed. But Lynne Arriale took Monk apart and put him back together again as well, Lynne Arriale.

Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge prized the sort of individual artistry that could "dissolve, diffuse, dissipate in order to re-create." Coleridge, and Monk, would have been pleased with what Arriale did with "Bemsha Swing." With unabated force and skill, she broke up the rhythms in a manner that might have surprised Monk, adding some cutting edge cragginess of her own--wild clusters, sudden glisses, insinuating phrases and pauses that might have made Cecil Taylor smile, had he been in the house! The audience was kept alert, alive, and appreciative by it all until, the tune--the avalanche--resolved, Lynne Arriale sat back and smiled herself, saying, "It's great to feel the presence of listening."

She then exchanged the appropriate power (and joy) of Monkish "attitude" for the deceptive ease and serenity of William Walton's "Touch Her Soft Lips and Part," a tune that contained classical elegance. Later, when I talked with her about her penchant for unadorned melody, Lynne Arriale offered a fitting analogy to speech. "Just because you know more words [substitute "notes"?], does that mean your speech is going to be more profound, or your writing? And the answer is 'No,' of course not. We all know that, yet it's funny that, in music sometimes, doing more to something is considered hip, or whatever. But if we dress it up, we won't be able to see the forest from the trees. So often you hear a jazz composition and it's clear that someone found some very hip changes that they liked, and then kind of made a melody squeeze into it. But, for me, it should be the other way around. The basic question is, 'What does this tune need?' If it needs reharmonization, it should have it, and if it really doesn't need it, if the harmony already moves beautifully, then let's let it be. We shouldn't just reharmonize to show that we can do it."

Ouch! I love words (too many for my own good perhaps) and reharmonizing them, but I could more than likely take some clues from Lynne Arriale. Fortunately, she's not completely shy of the baroque herself (when and if it's called for); for she also talked about "Bemsha Swing," of the variety and surprise her "wild" interpretation of that tune afforded. "We loved doing that! It was fun! It's such a great vehicle. There's a certain freedom that comes with Monk's tunes. They're very humorous. And angular, so it's easy to get angular too. That tune brings that out in us. Every tune invites something different."

Elsewhere, on the liner notes to Lynne Arriale Trio Live at Montreux, she'd said she wants an audience "to experience the widest range of human emotions," absorbing "many different colors, many different moods, many different directions." It works. Such generosity of spirit endeared her to the audience in Switzerland, and they loved her for it in Carmel too, where she offered a mix of tunes with familiar melodies ("The Song Is You,""It Ain't Necessarily So,""Beautiful Love"), another Monk piece ("Evidence"), Jimmy Rowles' softly evocative "The Peacocks" ("We haven't played it for a while, and at that point in the set, having a dark minor ballad was kind of cool") and, as an encore, Abdullah Ibrahim's handsome "The Mountain of the Night." In each, the tenets we would talk of later were much in evidence: healthy respect; spontaneity; conversion (in the case of "Beautiful Love" and "The Song is You," the freedom to offer "up tempo" versions without sacrificing melodic appeal); and imaginative power that includes, to borrow terms from Coleridge again, terms that apply equally well to fine poetry or fine music: the union of deep and subtle thought with sensibility; artistic courage (exploring depths which "few in any age are privileged to visit") and "perfect appropriateness of the words [read "notes"] to meaning"--or "strict accuracy of expression."

Lynne Arriale works in a trio format, primarily now with Jay Anderson on bass (John Hettle that night in Carmel), and miracle-working drummer Steve Davis, who has provided percussive support for the past eight years and seems to anticipate the pianist's every musical move (for example, in their rapport on "Seven Steps to Heaven" with its stuttered Satie-like close). Working a full drum kit with a dancer's poise, Davis provides gestures that are nearly as much fun to watch as he is to listen to, defly raking cymbals, beneath and above (he provides a delicacy with sticks that most drummers reserve for wire brushes); removing his right shoe for greater intimacy with the bass drum pedal, closing out "A House Is Not a Home" with an airborne wire brush flutter worthy of hummingbird wings.

On the night I saw, heard, and interviewed her, Lynne Arriale's plane had been delayed in Chicago, and she arrived at The Jazz & Blues Company just ten minutes before the trio's gig began. Nevertheless, a slender, beautiful woman with auburn hair (which, tossing it in time to "Steven Steps to Heaven," flared red) and stunning blue eyes, she carried a black "pillow" or cushion to the white piano bench: a cushion that looked as if it might be used for displaying jewels at Tiffany's (in similar situations, Toshiko Akiyoshi sits on a telephone book!), and she performed without a trace of haste--or hunger (after her sets, when we retired to the Rio Grill, I would learn that she hadn't had time to eat--an activity she undertook with zeal). Lynne Arriale's appearance matches the range of her music, for it also suggests a completely winning, slightly waif-like quality that quickly converts to a tough, no-nonsense and fully articulate manner. All of these aspects turn up in her music.

Milwaukee-born, Lynne Arriale studied classical music at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, acquired a Master's degree, and played classical music into her mid-20s, claiming that, up until that time, she had "very little exposure to jazz." She then accepted the challenge of music that combines on-the-spot creation ("composing a solo") with instant execution. She headed for New York in the 1980s; was one of ten jazz pianists to tour Japan with "100 Golden Fingers" in 1991 (in the excellent company of Hank Jones, Tommy Flanagan, Kenny Barron, Cedar Walton, and others); won the International Great American Jazz Piano Competition in 1993; and has since toured the world, while also recording six CDs.

I asked her about the challenges of jazz, an art form in which, in her words, you "just wait for the next phrase to come," and she said, "I did study and transcribe players when I first started. But it wasn't that easy for me to be the kind of player to take a lick and put it somewhere, because when you're actually playing you are in a different space. What seemed more natural was to practice playing when I was practicing: to be on the spot so that you could go in any direction at any time, a million different directions in terms of whatever the next phrase is, and without thinking, "Oh, here comes G minor and what am I going to do over G minor?" There are two ways of practicing: one is to actually be working on a particular thing and hope it shows up later on (and it might be years!); the other is to slow things down enough so that you can think on your feet, and land on your feet!"

I mentioned a time when, in a poetry workshop, a student asked just how one knew when a poem was finished or done, and I replied that perhaps the poem itself should tell you. "That's pretty mystical," someone responded but, now, I recalled a statement Lynne Arriale had made, that "a tune should just arrive. It should take its own shape. The hand is the servant to the music."

"Absolutely," she said, "because you can hear it when someone isn't doing that. It's as if you were having a conversation with someone and you recited something you memorized. What would be the value of that? But I also think there's a sharp craftsmen's eye and ear involved. You have to have the tools. It's not like, 'This is the moment in time for me.'"

We discussed Asian visual artists who do relish that moment in time and can render a figure with a single stroke.

"Because they train themselves," I said.

photo by Waring Abbott
"They train themselves," she responded, "they train themselves to be in that moment. But it's not that I compose something and say, 'Oh yes, that's fine, and then that's it.' I sit and agonize over what I write, just like anyone else. I usually start at the level of, 'Does something bother me?' [laughs]. The process is completely subjective. The thing that feels right, that's what should happen next. And then what? There are a lot of tunes--and some pretty well known tunes out there--in which the 'A' sections are really cool, but the bridge oh, God!"

"Can you give me an example?"

"No [laughs], I'm not going to do that, because I'll get in trouble [laughs again]. So it's fine to have that initial inspiration, but then the craft takes over. What are you going to do after that first line you just love?"

We also discussed what she regards as a primary quality while playing: what she calls "communicating from the deepest places "
"That's the goal," she said. "But it's a lifelong process to even get close to that state. You hear it in the masters, and you know that it's awesome. But to go there, and stay there to be that connected, to have that energy that's what I work towards. You don't have to play loudly, but you do have to play expressively. You can play something in an introverted way and still have it project. That's all about touch and a particular quality of sound. I'm letting more air come in between notes now, and the group can come down and play even quieter, so that we can be heard but it doesn't feel introverted. I think of being introverted as being in one's own world. The other thing is finding the right tempo for a tune, which has to do with knowing the lyrics. Melody is not exclusive of rhythm. And keeping the tune close to the human voice, within voice range; that's the place to start. Obviously, when you solo, you can expand on that, but in terms of playing the melody in a way that feels right and communicates a very human feeling, I like to keep it in that range."

I think one of the most "magical" elements of Lynne Arriale's artistry is her ability to play at excruciatingly slow tempos, tempos at which most other pianists would run the risk of somnolence, but which--in her hands and subtle touch--are fully alert, engaging, emotive. Each note, each tone, each color seems extracted with loving care, producing an effect which (this analogy may seem overly fanciful, but not if you've seen the film recently) reminds me of the early morning au naturel swim scene, a sort of slow motion underwater ballet, sensual yet serene, of Johnny Weissmuller and Mureen O'Sullivan in Tarzan and His Mate! In tunes such as "In The Wee Small Hours of the Morning,""Wouldn't It Be Loverly," and "My One and Only Love," Lynne Arriale has, I feel, produced some of the most plaintive, poignant, lyrically pleasing (yet heart-wrenching) music in jazz.

She has also, as a composer, provided many handsome tunes that share her best qualities as a performer, her solid principles, and her preference for striking melody. Some of them are tone poems whose titles equate with meaning ("Slinky,""Heartsong,""Elegy,""Waiting & Watching,""Will o' the Wisp,""A Long Road Home"), and this in spite of the fact that Lynne Arriale claims that, while composing, "I hear things first," and then asks, "What is this tune about? What does it represent?" Three of my favorite originals are: "With Words Unspoken" (which is just that: all that can be felt and said without words, that form of communication the Japanese call ishin denshin (crudely translated as "cultural telepathy"); "The Forgotten Ones," which drummer Davis ably assists with a grave and compassionate chant of mallets (Lynne Arriale: "It's such a sad melody, but I thought about people being alone, people who have no one. We can't imagine that, because most of us have someone we can talk to. But there are people who don't"); and 'The Dove," which is both stately and benign. "It's in Ab major, very warm colors, very modal, sweet, with a folk-like quality; it's letting people know it's okay to get off the ark now." [laughs]

For both performances and recordings, Lynne Arriale shapes or "programs" all this material--her own tunes, standards, jazz classics, fortunate discoveries--perfectly: a process that's important to her.

"I pick tunes that feel right for whatever project, that create a particular color, that contrast with the other tunes, so that means those tunes can come from anyplace, or any composer. What I like to do is shape a set [or CD] so that we get people right at the beginning. We have that first note, and from then on we want to take them on a journey. We don't want tunes to be too long or too short or too much the same. We want each tune to be particular voyage, so to speak, within an hour's time."

The future seems to hold near infinite possibilities for Lynne Arriale and her trio. It's a sure thing she won't end up as one of those musical artists who, no matter how good they are, get stuck in a particular groove and just stay there. Her near infinite prospects are the result of near infinite resources that reside within. If I may refer to Coleridge one last time: he contrasts creative persons who note down all they see and hear, and are able to repeat what they observe but are "frequently unconscious of its worth or its bearings" with those who have found an approach based upon their own individual nature, "relying on their own vivid and vigorous imagination." As a pianist and a composer, Lynee Arriale is one of the latter, in touch with herself and communicating "from the deepest places."

Photos courtesy of Debra Musselman

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