Can instrumental music that’s uniformly relaxed and occasionally tinged with melancholy still create a sense of urgency and express joy? Those are the seemingly contradictory feelings evoked by the affecting melodies, accomplished individual performances, and seamless ensemble work showcased on The Lights Are Always On. The album is pianist Lynne Arriale’s 16th release as a leader and second fronting a trio with drummer E.J. Strickland and Dutch bassist Jasper Somsen.
The collection of 10 Arriale originals was inspired by the healthcare workers who have persevered on the front lines of the COVID pandemic, even while risking infection—not unlike the 9/11 heroes, as she explains in the CD package’s lavish, informative 16-page booklet. The title track, specifically honoring Tacoma surgeon Dr. Prakash Gada, offers a chiming, circling melody, built on a stair-stepping bass line and a pretty, unhurried piano improvisation, the first of many on the album.
Nearly every track honors a person or group who proved inspiring during the Great Disruption of pandemic times. “Sisters,” honoring those women fighting against gender inequality, thrives on gospel-blues grooves and chordings; loping opener “March On,” honoring activists battling institutional racism and sexism, features the first of Somsen’s chewy, conversational upright solos and some creatively filled open space for Strickland.
Arriale pays tribute to American patriots too, with the stately, pastel-hued “Honor” for Lt. Colonel Alexander Vindman; the multicolor “The Notorious RBG” for the late Supreme Court Justice; and the hymnlike “Walk in My Shoes” for the late Congressman and civil-rights champion John Lewis. The trio closes with the lush ballad “Heroes.” Like the aptly titled “Sounds Like America”—do I hear Copland?—it’s imbued with strains of folkish Americana, melodies that Arriale effectively voices, unravels, and then puts back together again. Can we do the same thing with our country?