Lynne Arriale – jazz-liberated classicist

    Socio-political matters inspired a lot of the pianist's latest album but jazz remains her primary means of expression


    “I want it to feel like I’m pouring out love from my heart to the listener,” says pianist Lynne Arriale of her current CD The Lights Are Always On. “Even in the midst of a devastating couple of years when there’s been every reason to be anxious and depressed I’m choosing to give a message of hope and uplift and positive energy and I want people to feel lighter after listening.”

    The album’s title track was inspired by the words of a Washington physician, Prakash Gada, who, says Arriale, “was treating Covid patients and said: ‘No matter what happens the lights are always on. We’ll take care of you, I promise.’ And I was so struck by the heroism, the dedication, the sacrifice of all the people who have taken care of us during this incredible crisis.”

    Other tracks on the album, Arriale explains, are also dedicated to “people I was inspired by, that have changed our world.” These tracks include The Notorious RBG, which is dedicated to Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the liberal American Supreme Court justice and Walk In My Shoes, which is dedicated to civil rights leader and politician John Lewis, both of whom died in 2020.

    “I’m trying to convey my feelings and impressions through sound and I was thinking of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and I wanted to convey her strength. And with John Lewis I thought about him being the son of a sharecropper and arrested 40 times and [becoming] this incredible leader. There was such authenticity, power, integrity and heart in everything he said. ‘If you think things haven’t changed in this country, take a walk in my shoes,’ he said. Meaning we can be upset that things aren’t where we want them to be but from his perspective there had been change.”

    There is a sublime melodic quality in Arriale’s compositions. “I believe melody tells a story,” she says. “But harmony colours the melody so if I were to have a different harmonic structure underneath any of these tunes you would have a totally different experience of the tune. Even though you might not be aware that you as a listener are responding to the harmonies, you are! And when I think of the harmonic framework of a tune, I have in mind does it add to the melody and make it richer? And [since] I’m going to be soloing over these chord changes how does the harmony flow and how does that work? I take a lot of time trying different things and saying, ‘No, that’s not quite it, that doesn’t feel quite right . . .’”

    Arriale studied classical music to master’s degree level and believes that this has influenced her love of melody. “My teacher Rebecca Penneys would always have me sing the melodies of the compositions that I was playing in order to have more natural phrasing and after so many years playing Chopin and Brahms and Schubert and Schumann I think it’s embedded in my DNA that I look for beautiful melodies that tell a story and engage me. So I think that classical training was very helpful and helped shape my aesthetic.”

    Arriale most often works in a piano-trio format. “I love the piano trio,” she says. “It gives me the opportunity to shape the melody because I’m the one playing it. And there’s something about a three-way musical communication that’s very lovely. Each voice is unique and somehow we come together and interact with each other. It’s like a woven cloth where one line goes to the next and the other goes in the other direction and intersects with another . . . that’s how I view the texture of the piano trio.”

    On The Lights Are Always On Arriale is accompanied by bassist (and co-producer) Jasper Somsen and drummer E.J. Strickland. “Jasper is an outstanding bassist,” she says. “We are on the same page musically and I love listening to his solos because they’re very lyrical and really appropriate to each tune. And E.J. is an incredible player who brings a beautiful spirit to the music. I’m very grateful to play with such players.”

    Arriale explains that she told Somsen and Strickland the stories behind the compositions and how she wanted them performed. “I had been working on this material for a year and a half so I’d tried different things and I was very specific about what I was looking for. That can change during recording, of course. Magic can happen and you can go in a different direction but I think it’s important to tell the people you’re working with what your vision is.”

    Arriale composed all of the tracks on The Lights Are Always On but in the past has on occasions interpreted the compositions of others. Her 2020 album Chimes Of Freedom, for example, is named after the classic Bob Dylan composition that is included. The song is sung expressively by K.J. Denhert. But why, I wonder, did that song resonate with Arriale so much, nearly 60 years after it was written. “Because there were certain principles in our democracy that were at risk,” she says. “I think about how important freedom is and how important our democracy is and we have to protect it.”

    Chimes Of Freedom also includes an interpretation of Paul Simon’s American Tune (“It’s about immigration and welcoming people and what America means,” notes Arriale) and on other albums she has performed Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock and The Beatles’ Come Together, Blackbird and Let It Be. “I choose music based on how it resonates for me and how I think I can interpret it,” she says. “Woodstock I’ve listened to for years and years and it’s a very powerful composition and the lyrics harken back to a time in the 60s when we questioned everything. It was nice to revisit that era. And also bring new light to the composition: it’s not the Joni Mitchell version of Woodstock that I recorded, it’s a very different treatment.”

    Would Arriale ever actually have gone to see artists like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell in concert? ‘Well, I saw James Taylor in concert a couple of years ago but I tend to stay at home and listen to music’

    Would Arriale ever actually have gone to see artists like Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell in concert? “Well, I saw James Taylor in concert a couple of years ago but I tend to stay at home and listen to music,” she says.

    As a young student of classical music Arriale was almost totally unaware of jazz until she had an extraordinary epiphany. “I was walking down the street and a little voice in my head said: ‘You should study jazz!’ That was it. I was 24 and I didn’t know what jazz was! When I went for my first [jazz] lesson the teacher put Thelonious Monk’s ’Round Midnight in front of me and said: ‘Play that.’ So I played it and he said: ‘OK, now make up new melodies over those chords.’ And I looked at him and said: ‘Are you kidding? I can do that?’ And he said: ‘Yeah, that’s the general idea!’ I didn’t understand that jazz was making up new melodies over the same chord changes so that every time you played the song it is essentially a different composition.”

    Arriale has taught at the University of North Florida since 2006. “It’s very satisfying,” she asserts. “It’s an incredible music school and my students are great, they’re so eager to learn, they work hard and they love music and they love learning. I couldn’t possibly ask for a more inspiring environment.”

    Teaching of course is notoriously draining. “It definitely takes a lot of energy and I’m tired after a day’s teaching,” she acknowledges. “But my responsibility to my students is to motivate them, to constantly push them because I know what it takes to be a professional and that it involves a lot of hard work. There are no quick paths.”

    Arriale has to fit her career as a musician around her teaching responsibilities. “The university encourages us to tour so I can take some time during each semester. And the tours aren’t long like they used to be. They used to be two weeks but now maybe they’ll be four days.”

    In October 2021 Arriale suffered the devastating loss of her husband Don. Did music provide her with any solace during that terrible time? “Losing any loved one is an overwhelming experience and time helps us, other people help us and music can help us. I listen to different kinds of music to change my state. I turn on James Taylor a lot. Shower The People, You’ve Got A Friend or any of his songs make me feel better almost like there’s a chemical change in my brain. I hear such purity and such beauty that it’s therapeutic.

    “And I also did other things, at a certain point, to help change my state. It wasn’t avoiding the grieving, it was just that I had cried a lot, I was exhausted, I was shot and I said” ‘I also want to be happy.’ I didn’t feel like playing piano. Playing does not give me solace. When I’m playing I’m trying to work on things, I’m in my process and that’s a different experience. But I didn’t want to get out of shape in terms of my technique so I would just play scales and watch Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. It’s hilarious and I’d just be laughing and laughing.”