The Poetic Inspiration of Pianist Lynne Arriale


Pianist and composer Lynne Arriale

(Photo: Juan Carlos Villarroel)

Over the course of 13 albums, pianist Lynne Arriale has emphasized melodies—most often her own, but also those of Thelonious Monk, Paul McCartney and Joni Mitchell. But she is quick to correct a common misconception: She’s not simply improvising on the original themes; she’s inventing a string of melodies that begin with the original themes and lead somewhere else.

“The main thing I want to do is to tell a story,” Arriale explained. “How do we tell a story? Ideally, we try to create one little melody after another, like Bach or Beethoven. If I were talking to you and I kept repeating the same sentence, you’d think that was boring. And if I followed one sentence with an unrelated sentence, you’d think I wasn’t making sense. But if I said, ‘My name is Lynne,’ and I said, ‘I live in Jacksonville,’ then that would make sense. So, continuity is important. I may not be using any part of the original melody, but one thing should lead to the next.”

Arriale’s new album, Give Us These Days, consists of six original compositions and three interpretations, opening with Mitchell’s “Woodstock.” The pianist begins with the original intro, verse and chorus melodies, clearly defined, so listeners can imagine the lyrics in their heads. She repeats the verse with variations, and that leads into a melody of her own devising. That leads into another new tune, and so on. But the echo of the lyrics lingers.

The new album’s title comes from the poem “Devotional,” a piece written by poet and editor Jim Schley, who was Arriale’s classmate at Nicolet High School just outside Milwaukee. The two alumni reconnected a few years ago, and Arriale was moved by his poem about the transience of life, especially its final line: “Give us these days.”

“That line inspired the whole album—the idea that every day is precious—and I wanted each song to reflect that in some way,” Arriale said. “The rhythm of that phrase gave me the rhythm for the song. Once you have the first phrase, it’s easier to find the following phrases, because you have a good start and the others have to make sense with that. Does the phrase continue the story, or does the story get lost?”

Arriale, who teaches at the University of North Florida, never had made a recording with an unfamiliar rhythm section, but when the Netherlands’ Challenge Records extended an invitation to make an album with its in-house rhythm section of bassist Jasper Somsen and drummer Jasper Van Hulten, the pianist decided this was an experience she needed to have. The trio displays a remarkable synergy on Arriale originals, such as “Appassionata” and “Another Sky.”

“An equal conversation between all musicians in any lineup is essential to reaching higher musical levels and deeper meanings,” Somsen said. “Having a good conversation with any musician means you have to be open-minded. With Lynne and us, this conversation has been very strong from the start.”

The album ends with vocalist Kate McGarry joining the trio for a version of Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan’s “Take It With Me,” which Waits recorded on 1999’s Mule Variations. In her past recordings, Arriale has focused on instrumental versions of songs. But she felt so strongly about these particular lyrics that she wanted to interpret the song with a singer.

“The song takes the idea of ‘You can’t take it with you’ and turns it upside-down to say, ‘Yes, you can take it with you,’” Arriale explained. “It tied into the idea of Jim’s poem. The first time I heard Tom Waits sing the song, I literally had to pull over to the side of the road, because I was so struck by the message and how he was singing it. I wanted people to hear the lyrics, as well as the melody.” DB

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