The American pianist Lara Downes is a self-described iconoclast who has pursued original programming concepts both in concert and on recordings. Not so much a crossover artist as one who incorporates classical and vernacular materials into a larger story, she is an artist who has crossed musical borders in multiple ways. Downes was born in San Francisco on April 22, 1973, to parents who had met as civil rights activists. Her father was a Jamaican-born biochemist, her mother a Jewish American attorney of Russian background. Downes took up the piano at four "and simply never stopped," she told All About Jazz. She attracted the attention of top European-born teachers in California, but when she was 15, her mother took her and her two musically oriented siblings and embarked on a kind of grand tour of Europe. Downes studied with Hans Graf at the Hochschule für Musik in Vienna and the Mozarteum in Salzburg, also taking classes at the Paris Conservatory and the Music Academy of Basel in Switzerland. The family group also concertized widely, but, Downes told All About Jazz, "I wasn’t cut out to do the Von Trapp Family thing." Growing tired of the road, she returned to the U.S. for further piano studies. She began teaching at the University of California, Davis, in 2001, and then was appointed artist-in-residence at the university's Mondavi Center. This gave her the opportunity to organize unusual programming that crossed boundaries between classical, jazz, and pop. She collaborated with jazz saxophonist David Sanborn on Long Time Coming, a work based on the career of bandleader Duke Ellington. Soon she was gaining attention beyond California for her own concerts, and she was described by U.S. National Public Radio as "a delightful artist with a unique blend of musicianship and showmanship." Downes has been heard on NPR's Performance Today, the New Sounds program on radio station WNYC in New York, and Jazz Set on New Jersey station WBGO. Her recordings, beginning with 2000's Invitation to the Dance, are marked by thematic programs that cross national, ethnic, and gender boundaries. She recorded for the Postcards, Azica, and Tritone labels before signing with the Steinway & Sons label and releasing Exiles' Café, reflecting on the transnational quality of so much European music, in 2013. Downes issued several more albums on Steinway & Sons, whose emphasis on pianism was a boon to her career, moved to Sono Luminus for 2016's America Again (the title came from a poem by Langston Hughes), and was then signed to the Sony Classical label. She released For Lenny, a tribute to the similarly eclectic Leonard Bernstein, in 2018, following it up the next year with Holes in the Sky. The program of that release featured composers as diverse as Jennifer Higdon, Judy Collins, and Clarice Assad, and marked a new expansion of the adventuresome spirit of one of the most fearless pianists on the U.S. scene. ~ James Manheim
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