US pianist Lynne Arriale (trio at Pizza Express on 11 + 12 April 2023)

“Our goal is to reach people through melodies and our musical ‘conversation,’ so that even people who know nothing about jazz feel the music on a visceral level.” US Pianist and composer Lynne Arriale released her sixteenth album, The Lights are Always On, in 2022. She returns to London after a long gap… and brings her trio to the Pizza Express Dean Street for two dates in April. Ahead of these concerts, she spoke about the background to the album and what audiences can expect from her shows. Interview by Bruce Lindsay

Lynne Arriale. Photo credit: Juan Carlos Villorroel

London Jazz News: You dedicate The Lights are Always On to ‘our loved ones … those who embrace truth, compassion and inclusivity, and reject selfishness, lies and hatred … the marchers, my beautiful sisters worldwide, and the heroes of science and medicine …’ How does such a strong focus as your starting point impact on your approach to writing these tunes?

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Lynne Arriale: My concept for this album was a tribute to the people who played such a vital role in responding to the global pandemic. The bravery and heroism moved me so deeply that I found that the music flowed as an expression of my admiration and gratitude.

LJN : What’s important to you when you perform?

LA: We play music to reach people’s hearts, especially during these most challenging times. I would love to take people on a musical journey, where they are totally engaged and experience uplifting emotions. Music is a powerful force to allow people to ‘feel’. I would hope that the passion of our music would inspire energy, joy and love, even after people leave our concert.

Our music is not just for jazz lovers, it’s for everyone. Our goal is to reach people through melodies and our musical ‘conversation,’ so that even people who know nothing about jazz feel the music on a visceral level.

LJN: Why do you play music and what do you want the audience to experience when you’re playing?

LA: When we perform for people, there’s a beautiful synergy that takes place between the audience and the group, an exchange of energy that inspires us. The audience is part of our performance, as if there is a four-way conversation going on. Our listeners participate in the experience of jazz improvisation, which has been called ‘the sound of surprise’.

LJN: It’s clear from your social media that you feel very strongly about the events and people that inspired The Lights are Always On. Was there a specific event that made you decide to write and record this music, or was the idea built up over time?

LA: The global pandemic and everything that was going on raised my admiration for our healthcare workers, first responders and defenders of global democracy. This profoundly affected my composing the music for this album. I heard an interview with Dr Prakash Gatta, a surgeon in Tacoma, Washington, who said ‘Here I am back at work after Covid … I fled Kuwait after the invasion. No matter what happens, no-one works at home. The lights are always on. Babies are being born, bones are being set. This hospital, this profession … we are in a league of our own. We’ll take care of you, I promise. I stand next to the most fearless people I have ever seen’. His statement was so powerful and compelling that it inspired me to write the title track. I was so moved by his words, and I expanded the idea to reflect the spiritual light of humanity, compassion, and courage of Dr Gatta and all our angels, shining brightly and eternally, even in the midst of devastation and loss.

LJN: Some of the tunes are dedicated to particular individuals – ‘The Notorious RBG,’ for example, is dedicated to Ruth Bader Ginsberg and seems to capture much of her personality and dogged determination in a very optimistic, upbeat, way. When writing instrumental tributes to specific people do you have a particular way of approaching the writing? 

LA: Having followed the career and accomplishments of Ruth Bader Ginsberg over many years, I thought about her, felt her strength, and started writing, which is often my process. I then play the melody that I’ve written and decide if the music reflects the individual’s personality and character.

LJN: When performing the music from this album, how much freedom do you give yourself and your fellow musicians to improvise/solo?

LA: As jazz musicians we have the language and experience to improvise on any song. Improvisation is our creative response to the melodic theme and harmony of the song. We improvise over harmonic/chord changes and create new melodies. These solos can go in any musical direction. Within a jazz performance the audience hears a kind of unscripted musical conversation among the musicians – one that can vary tremendously with different performances of the same composition.

LJN: On Spotify, ‘Heroes’ is by far the most-played track from this album, with almost 600,000 streams. It’s certainly a beautiful number, but I wonder if you think there are any other reasons why it’s so popular?

LA: Thank you, that’s lovely to hear! A tune’s popularity lies in the heart of each person who hears it. I am gratified that ‘Heroes’ speaks to so many people.

LJN: You’ll be playing Pizza Express with bassist Jasper Somsen, who’s on The Lights are Always On, and drummer Lukaz Zyta who replaces EJ Strickland. Will you be focussing on this album or can the audience expect new material and/or some of your back catalogue as well?

LA: Our performances will include selections from our last three albums on Challenge Records International: The Lights are Always On, Chimes of Freedom and Give Us These Days, plus a few surprises. I am looking forward to playing in London again: it’s been many years and it will be such a pleasure to reconnect with Londoners who have been very supportive over many years.

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LINK: Book for Lynne Arriale Trio at Pizza Express Jazz Club / (also includes biography)

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