Lynne Arriale: Better Late Than Ever

Jeff Tamarkin profiles the gifted pianist whose latest album Convergence mixes originals with unusual covers

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Lynne Arriale
By Jean-Marc Lubrano
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Bill McHenry, Lynne Arriale, Omer Avital and Anthony Pinciotti

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You know all those stories about musicians who hear jazz at a very young age and suddenly realize that making this music is why they were put on this Earth? This is not one of them. Lynne Arriale did not dream about playing jazz when she was barely tall enough to reach the piano keys. Although she began studying the instrument around the time she was in kindergarten, and has always made her living playing and teaching music, Arriale had almost zero exposure to jazz until she was in her mid-20s.

“I may have heard an hour of it before that and I didn’t get it,” says Arriale, 53, from her Jacksonville, Fla., home. “But I didn’t know it was improvised music. I didn’t have a clue.”

Once Arriale found that clue, however, there was no looking back. Over the past 18 years, the classically trained pianist and composer has released a dozen jazz albums and amassed a stack of impressive kudos from critics and fellow musicians. Her latest, Convergence (Motéma), is, perhaps, the jewel of that catalog, the place where all of Arriale’s gifts congregate. The album lives up to its title as the leader fuses together the various elements that have made her previous work so enticing: her finely attuned compositional, arranging and interpretive skills; the undeniable lyricism in her melodies; her indefatigable zeal for rhythmic ingenuity and ever-surprising harmonic structures; and her aptitude for drawing new insights from multiple sources.

The album also marks a convergence of musicians who’ve never before collaborated as a unit. Having dropped her long-standing trio in favor of a quartet for 2009’s Nuance, for Convergence Arriale teams again with the previous album’s drummer, Anthony Pinciotti, drafts Israeli phenom Omer Avital on bass, and replaces Randy Brecker’s trumpet with the tenor saxophone of Bill McHenry on five tracks. With both her new original compositions and inspired covers of songs culled from the rock world—Arriale takes on the Beatles and the Stones, Sting, Blondie (“Call Me”) and, perhaps most surprisingly, Nine Inch Nails’ “Something I Can Never Have”—Arriale has effectively reshaped her sound. “It really is a ‘convergence’ of energies within the group,” she says, “the whole process of improvisation and group interplay and the musical conversation, just the intangible quality of what happens when different minds come together and there’s a meeting point. That’s where the magic happens.

“It was just time for a change,” she continues. “I had a wonderful experience over the years with [bassist] Jay Anderson and [drummer] Steve Davis. I like the idea of staying with one group and going deeper into that connection. Now I’m appreciating something different. I just wanted a different sound.”

That “different sound,” in addition to McHenry’s saxophone, includes the incorporation of an oud—a lute-like stringed instrument common in Middle Eastern music—played by Avital. Showcased on the Arriale tune “Dance of the Rain,” it lends an exotic international air to the recording. Arriale, never one to restrain herself, opens up widely on Convergence, drilling deeply into each melody and making impromptu decisions on where to take it. The band follows closely, anticipating her every move and nudging Arriale into new places themselves.

New compositions such as the bluesy, propellant opening track “Elements,” the dynamic, Celtic-based title song, the McHenry-driven ballad “For Peace” and the gentle, melancholic closer “The Simple Things” are, to borrow from the previous album’s title, among her most nuanced to date. Arriale even manages to give new life to George Harrison’s oft-covered “Here Comes the Sun” and the Stones’ “Paint It Black.”

One way in which she and the quartet do so is to reference the main theme and build around it. “We tried different approaches [as the group rehearsed], and I recorded everything so I could listen back later,” Arriale says. “I was curious how everyone viewed it. Sometimes there were slight tempo changes, and I would say, ‘This feels more subtle at this tempo,’ and I got everyone’s opinion. The substance of the tunes didn’t change that much, although maybe solo order or endings. I wanted the musicians to feel that they could speak freely, that this was an open forum. Here’s a tune, here’s where I have it. Now, any other ideas, please tell me what they are because I don’t know what I don’t know. You never know when someone is going to say something that will change the entire feeling of the piece.”

“The music kind of played itself,” says Avital. “The sessions went very smoothly; we did a lot quickly. We worked out the arrangement, but she already had things in mind that she wanted. Lynne has a different approach than a lot of people that I’ve played with. She’s very sensitive and has a calmness about her that I really appreciate. And she’s very lyrical. She tries to put out a feeling, a vibe, rather than specifics. Maybe it’s her classical background. It’s still very much jazz, obviously, but she’s got this other sensitivity.”

“When we did the Nuance album,” adds Pinciotti, “Randy [Brecker] and [bassist] George [Mraz] really wanted her to direct a lot of the vibe, and she had more specific compositional elements in mind; she has a certain map [she follows]. But on the first rehearsal for this album the band got hold of her music and just immediately opened up on it. I don’t know if she was expecting or not expecting that, but she was happy when it happened.”

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Perhaps it’s her late-blooming interest in jazz that has allowed Arriale to maintain the openness to ideas that resides at the core of her art, and that has given her carte blanche to follow her own path, relatively free of preconception. “Lynne’s playing is amazingly unique,” wrote Brecker in the liner notes for Nuance. “I don’t think I can compare her to anyone. She really has a unique place in the music world. Her music transcends the word ‘jazz.’ It is just pure music.”

Arriale literally came to jazz on a whim. “I heard a thought in my mind, and the thought was, ‘You should play jazz,’” Arriale says. “I’m not making this up. We have passing thoughts all the time, and thank God we don’t listen to some of them. But for whatever reason I did listen to this one, and it wasn’t like a voice in my head screaming at me. It was the same voice that would say, ‘Oh, I have to go to the store today.’”

Her initial experiences playing jazz brought Arriale back to her Wisconsin childhood, when she concocted melodies on a plastic toy piano. She knew even at age 4 that she wanted to play the real thing, and was soon granted lessons. Later, from 17 until age 25, Arriale studied under Rebecca Penneys, now at the Eastman School of Music, and then jazz came a-calling. Arriale took to it quickly and naturally, inspired by Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Cedar Walton, Gene Harris and, later on, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock and Richie Beirach, whom she credits as “having a great impact on me as a musician.”

Arriale’s debut release, The Eyes Have It, was recorded for Digital Music Productions in 1993, the same year that she won the Great American Jazz Piano Competition at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival. More albums for the Dmp and TCB labels followed, and in 2003 she signed with her present label, Motéma, and released Arise. Subsequent trio documents for the brand, such as 2004’s Come Together and 2006’s Live, display Arriale’s mounting confidence and command as a leader, and Nuance provides a well-balanced collection of original songs and covers tailored for the expanded quartet format. (Both Live and Nuance also include a performance DVD.)

Arriale’s repertory choices involve a process in which redefinition trumps replication. “For me to want to channel an artist would go against every fiber of my being, because they were unique,” says Arriale. “They showed us their deepest soul and deepest creativity and gave us so much, and to imitate that would be tantamount to imitating another person’s personality. I choose material that is accessible to people and hopefully I shine a different light on it, so if something is recognizable the music can go in a different direction. It’s not just about ‘Let me pick some pop tune and put it in here.’ I have a very long list of tunes that I love but I don’t think I could bring anything to them; there has to be something in it that can be transformed into something else.”

One source she has tapped for material on several occasions is Thelonious Monk. “When I hear Monk,” Arriale says, “I hear someone who was so authentically himself. That to me is the essence of great artistry. His tunes allow for such a wide range of interpretations. And the motives in the tunes are so strong. The audience feels a sense of connection with the whole piece.”

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Arriale speaks often of connections. Communicating directly with her audience and her musicians is of paramount importance. “We’re all sharing the same space together, and what we have in common is so much greater than our differences,” she says. “If we remember that and see the big picture we’ll always be aware of connections. This is very important to me, and more than being a musician, I think that’s what I’m supposed to do.”

With that in mind, Arriale, in addition to her recording and performing life, serves as Assistant Professor of Jazz Piano and Director of Small Ensembles at the University of North Florida (UNF), in Jacksonville. When she learned that the school was seeking a jazz piano instructor, Arriale offered her services, and she is now a valued member of the faculty. “I really like it,” she says. “[Alto saxophonist] Bunky Green is the head of the department and he’s so awesome and brilliant and so humble and such a spiritual force.”

Green returns the compliment. “Lynne is one of the finest performers out there and she brings all of that real-life experience to the classroom,” he says. “She is a major pillar of our jazz program at UNF, and we are very fortunate to have her.”

“There’s something very special at UNF,” Arriale continues. “I have wonderful students who are so eager to learn and I learn so much from them.”

Arriale also found herself taking in as much as she was giving during a recent visit to South Africa. “The trip was somewhat transformative for me,” she says. “I played for the Jazz Foundation [of South Africa] and the wonderful orchestrator, William Haubrich, orchestrated my original tunes for symphony orchestra plus big band. I shared the stage with three other musicians: [tuba master] Howard Johnson; Gloria Bosman, a wonderful vocalist from South Africa; and Feya Faku, a trumpet and flugelhorn player and composer. It was a powerful experience to hear their music, which has such heart and such soul and such beauty, and also work with the symphony orchestra in that format.

“The people there were so hospitable and so loving and warm,” she adds. “I was privileged to go to a jazz school and there were students who came from all over to play jazz. We played together, we worked on tunes, and the enthusiasm for learning jazz was so strong among these young musicians. You see the beautiful life in their faces and in their eyes. They hungered to play.”

The memory of her recent journey fortifies Arriale’s conviction—formed from her own experiences—that music education must emphasize the passion of playing, not a series of rigid exercises. When she was young, Arriale recalls, “I practiced for five minutes a week and kept wanting to quit. Now I’m teaching a 9-year-old, privately, and he’s very talented and has perfect pitch. But one day I was looking in his music book and he had written, ‘I hate my music teacher!’ So I said, ‘We’re not going to do that anymore. We’re going to have fun!’ First and foremost [for a teacher] is to not stifle creativity, to not harm a person’s spirit in any way, just like when doctors take the Hippocratic oath. Try to find a way to allow a student’s spirit to flourish and the music will find its way.”

Just as it did, arriving one day in a thought bubble, for Lynne Arriale.

Originally published in May 2011

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