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Q&A with jazz performer Lynne Arriale
Arriale to perform Saturday in Gainesville
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Question: Your early 2007 release LIVE is doing well on the charts. How did that performance become an album release with an included DVD?

Answer: It’s a live concert at the Burghausen Jazz Festival, and when we did the concert we didn’t actually know it was going to become a DVD and a CD, but we decided to put it out. It’s kind of a departure from what we’ve done up till now because it’s our first DVD, and it’s a live concert so every tune is a little bit more extended and gives someone the feeling of really being there. It’s a different experience. When someone goes to hear a live concert they see the musicians move, they see the interaction, as well as hearing what’s going on. To have that experience in the privacy of your living room is something we just wanted to offer our listeners.

Q: You’ve performed at jazz festivals around the world, from Japan to Spain. Do you have a favorite jazz festival?

A: No. Whatever the next concert is, is my favorite. (laughs)

Q: You’ve been pretty successful in the United States, Asia and Europe. What do you think is the worldwide appeal of jazz?

A: It is an international language. People don’t often know that we are improvising. And what that means in the context of our music is that we’re playing the melody of the song, first. For example, on the live album, there’s a tune by The Beatles called "Come Together." We have a slightly different arrangement, which still retains the melody, but it kind of has a new slant to the tune, like shining a new light on something familiar. But after the melody is played, we are creating new melodies and we are improvising over the same set of chord changes. So that means that every night, the concert is different. Unlike classical music — where you are playing a piece that is written, and you are bringing it to life off the page — we are creating a new piece every night, in a sense. And that’s a very exciting thing to do. We feel the excitement within the group, and I think the audience feels that, as well, whether they know what’s going on or not. I’ve actually had listeners come up to me after I’ve kind of explained what we’re doing, which sometimes I will do with an audience, and they come up to me afterwards and say they’ve been listening to jazz 40 years and never knew that that’s what was going on. But to me, that’s a testament to the power of the music — that they loved it and they didn’t have to know what was going on — that there was something just so infectious about this music and something so compelling.

Q: You reinvent not only the music of The Beatles, but your music as well. As a professional performer, how does having a fresh take as a standard aspect of each performance bode for you on the road as you’re travelling, maybe all night at times?

A: It’s not the same show. And that gives it a freshness. It’s definitely challenging to be on the road, and to be in challenging, sometimes difficult circumstances. Instruments get lost, go to the wrong city. Everything you can imagine happens and probably has happened. Flights get delayed, and sometimes you arrive to the concert five minutes before the concert starts. All that has happened, thankfully not often, but it definitely does. But knowing you can get into the space of other musicians and have this wonderful communication is what makes it all worthwhile — all the craziness of travelling and all the challenges that we face. The music itself is exciting, and we’re constantly reinventing ourselves through the music.

Q: Would you say you’re a woman in a man’s jazz world?

A You could say that. You could say that, it’s true.

Q: You think so?

A: I know so. But there are a lot of wonderful women players now. Thank goodness our predecessors have really paved the way to make it easier for women to play this music. But it’s definitely male dominated.

Q: Who are some of those people you believe have paved the way for you?

A: Mary Lou Williams, Mariam McPartland. It’s a long list. It’s a long list. All the vocalists, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald. They’ve all paved the way.

Q: What challenges have you faced as a woman in jazz, being a world-wide traveller and performer?

A: I think there’s just the challenges of the music itself. It’s really about connecting with people. It’s about connecting with your fellow musicians and connecting with the audience. And that really transcends gender. It goes way beyond any ethnic or gender differences or age differences. This music has such power, this art form, that it really transcends all those limiting factors. So I just think about it as music.

Q: It’s not so uncommon on European Billboard charts for a jazz album to reach No. 1, but it is more so in American culture. Why do you think your trio has managed to reach the top of the charts in the U.S. when jazz isn’t the type of music you hear on the radio so much?

A: Well, there are a lot of jazz stations still. I think it’s because of the material we pick, that is accessible to people and are melodies that people like to listen to. And really, the focus for us is about melody. Melody is what reaches people, whether it’s the melody of a pop tune or a Celtic ballad or an original composition. People listen for melodies, and the melodies stay with us. When I’m improvising, I’m telling a story from the beginning to the end, and I hope to take my audience with me on this little musical journey and have it make sense to them, but also reach them on an emotional level, as well.

Q: How did you come to be a jazz pianist?

A: Well, I started improvising when I was 3 or 4 years old, but I didn’t hear jazz until I was 25. So I grew up playing by ear, which a lot of students do, but also playing classical music. And then later on in life I discovered jazz. And that was it for me. I knew that was what I wanted to do.

It kind of struck me on the head, actually. I literally was walking down the street, sunny day, beautiful blue sky. And I just had a passing thought, and it was, ‘You should study jazz.’ I literally had that thought. And I didn’t even really know what jazz was. And I listened. We have many, many passing thoughts during the day, obviously, but this one is one that I listened to. I started learning about the tradition, and that was the beginning for me.

Q: That’s amazing. Where did you grow up, Lynne?

A: Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And I did my undergraduate work at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, and then my graduate work at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music in Milwaukee.

Q: Were you doing your graduate work when you had your jazz epiphany?

A: Yes, I was. And when I took my first few lessons, I remember thinking, "Oh, my God! So you can improvise? You can play a tune to any tempo in any key with any kind of feel? And you can make those decisions on your own?" ... There’s a tremendous amount of freedom of choice in how we play. When you think of jazz greats, they all sound very different. To think of Oscar Peterson, Thelonious Monk, Keith Jarrett — we are all sharing a similar language to them, but they all sounded so different, and that’s what’s so remarkable about jazz.

Q: When you did have this jazz epiphany at 25, how did that change the way you had been improvising since you were so young?

A: Well, I had stopped improvising; I did that when I was younger. And I could still play by ear, but it was kind of never nurtured all those years, so I never really did anything with it. I was just focused on my classical music. And then all of a sudden it came back. And I started playing by ear again, and making up new melodies and sitting at the piano and listening and playing things, and seeing what sounds I liked. It was a period of great discovery. It was like when a little kid sits at the piano, it’s just a magical instrument — all these beautiful sounds. Sometimes they’re not so beautiful, but sometimes they are.

Q: You’ve played huge cities all over the world. What draws you here to Gainesville?

A: It’s a lovely audience. It’s a lovely intimate venue. And that’s always very rewarding to feel the audience is close. Big concert halls are nice, but they’re big. There’s something very special about being physically close to the audience.

Q: Is there anything else you’d like to let folks know about before you arrive in Gainesville on Saturday?

A: The absolute most important thing for us when we’re playing is to reach people. To take them on a little journey, as I mentioned before, to allow them to relax and get away from it all for a couple of hours. To start being immersed in sounds and melodies, and that’s why we do this. That’s why we play for people. That gives everything meaning for us.

Q: And on that same note, what keeps you going, what gives you inspiration putting out album after album, performing night after night?

A: I draw upon other artists who have influenced me and inspired me. This is what I do. This is my life’s work. And I enjoy it. I feel very lucky to be doing this. I think it’s a very exciting life. And the music always teaches me, all the time. There’s things that happen in music that go beyond words, that teach us of the more subtle things in life — beyond words. I always think of it as what happens in the space between notes. (laughs) Interesting thought, hmm? People should come and hear the concert, and then they’ll know. Something happens, and they should listen for the space between the notes. Where does their mind go and what happens? That’s the question. That’s exactly it. There’s not an answer. It’s the experience of it. Instead of asking the question, the answer is just the fact that we’re asking the question. And we’re being made aware of something.

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