April 24, 2013

Out and About With Lara Downes

Yoshi's San Francisco
By Molly Colin

Lara DownesThe talented Lara Downes is an intriguing musician with an eclectic repertoire, a penchant for bling, and lots of BFFs doing some of the most innovative and challenging work in crossover music. On Wednesday evening Downes headlined at the San Francisco jazz club Yoshi’s, kicking off a series of concerts that she’s curated for it called The Artists’ Sessions. She’s rounded up a number of her musical BFFs to play and chat over the next year, including the pianist and host of NPR’s From the Top, Christopher O’Riley, and vocalist/composer Theo Bleckman, whose credits include creating the space-alien language for the Steven Spielberg film Men in Black.

Downes’ initial offering, mixing music with memories of exile, echoed her new CD, Exiles Café, on Steinway & Sons. Bonhomie reigned in the jazz club’s intimate atmosphere as cheerful, black-clad servers crisscrossed the room taking orders for drinks and sushi while patrons waited for the show to begin. The mixed-age, animated audience seemed as much at home at Yoshi’s as did international habitués of a café in Paris or Berlin between the world wars, including one man happily rendering quick sketches of merrymakers on his Arch drawing pad during most of the show.

Shortly after 8 p.m. Downes appeared onstage, to loud applause. With a pleasant mien and looking stylish in spike-heeled, tan ankle booties, her dark-brown hair pulled pack into a low-key bouffant that showcased sparkly drop earrings, and wearing a snow-white chiffon long-sleeved minidress edged with silver sequins straight out of Mad Men’s Megan Calvet’s closet, Downes explained what gave her the idea for the performance series. Fascinated with the “meet-the-artist” format of the cable television program Inside the Actors Studio, she said, she wanted to introduce interesting musicians and music and wanted people to get to know the artist.

Joining Downes on the evening’s program were KDFC radio host Rik Malone, in a crisp cream summer suit, and members of the Grammy-nominated Quartet San Francisco decked out in variations of gray and black like a Whistler painting. This Session’s A-B-AC-A-AB format began with Downes as the hostess, followed by Quartet San Francisco, which segued to a frothy chat between Downes and Malone, followed by Downes performing pieces from her new CD, and ending with Downes joining the quartet for two sonorous tangos.

The mixed-age, animated audience seemed as much at home at Yoshi’s as did international habitués of a café in Paris or Berlin between the world wars.

At a small table, pianist Andrea Ligouri waited for her husband, violinist Jeremy Cohen, to take the stage with the crossover string quartet he leads, comprising violinist Matthew Szemela, violist Chad Kaltinger, and cellist Kelley Maulbetsch. “Lara seems to want to break down the barrier between audience and musician … so there’s an exchange,” offered Ligouri, between sips of a gin and tonic. Ligouri’s table companion, fresh from a perfect day at the ballpark, nodded his head dreamily in agreement while nursing a Manhattan. When asked what brought him to the show, he replied with a twinkle in his eyes, “My girfriend’s the cellist.”

Composers-in-Exile

The quartet opened with a chopstick-clicking rendition of Bei Mir Bistu Shein, of Benny Goodman and the Andrew Sisters fame, written by composer Sholom Secunda, a Russian immigrant to the U.S. “This is music that has some kind of diaspora history with it,” said Cohen, as he briefly described each composer’s journey in exile before the Quartet played its selected works. A redhead in a leopard-print shirt twiddled her fingers on an imaginary keyboard as the quartet moved through a technically difficult, string-popping rendition of Astor Piazzolla’s Nuevo tango. A lusher piece by the Argentine composer, Melodia en la menor, evoked a Missed Connection in Buenos Aires.

Downes returned to the stage with Malone. Perched on stools, and each holding a silver mic — Downes’ mic nicely complementing her dress — they preceded to banter like a team of television anchors exchanging Happy Talk. “So why the Sessions?” asked Malone, pivoting toward a beaming Downes.

“On my CD I’ve turned this idea of musical exiles into an imaginary place — a magical place where these composers came and shared their experiences.” – Lara Downes

“I’m trying to bring down the walls,” she replied. “I want to bring my friends in and try to create something new in the city. A friend kind of gave me the idea for the sessions when she visited me in a Green Room and said, ‘You’re just as charismatic offstage as onstage.’”

Malone nodded. “You know, when a lot of this music was created, there wasn’t this distance intended between audience and performers,” he observed, noting the large size of modern concert halls. “It’s kind of like The Magic Flute had its premiere in essentially what was the Yoshi’s of its day.”

“Yeah, “ agreed Downes. “On my CD I’ve turned this idea of musical exiles into an imaginary place — a magical place where these composers came and shared their experiences. But it’s also a real place. And if you’re a traveler, it’s a place you probably know, where you can sit and write those postcards back home.”

After Downes played pieces from her CD, the Quartet returned to the stage and joined Downes in a Piazzolla tango that was as smooth as the accordioned waterfall of red velvet hanging behind the musicians.

At a cozy après-concert party in Yoshi’s bar celebrating the release of her CD, as well as her birthday, musicians and audience members alike mingled and chatted, just as Downes hoped. “It’s a lecture demonstration for people with drinks,” Downes reflected about the evening’s shared experiences, which included the passing of a singular milestone for the Davis-based musician. When asked which birthday, Downes replied with a wink, “I’m 29,” and floated off to greet guests. The bonhomie continued with people moving to and fro, balancing drinks with squares of sugary cake, talking of Piazzolla.

Journalist Molly Colin writes about the arts and cultural trends.