Photograph credit: Joe Montezinos

Pianist Lynne Arriale has been making some of the most interesting trio records for the thirty years. Those familiar with her work will have taken much pleasure in following her progress, and with each new release witnessing her continued growth as an artist.

One of the most intriguing and endearing aspects of Arriale’s music is the way in which she focusses on the work of a trio as a unit. Never piano and rhythm, her trios have always worked as a collective, and if as of late, the pianist is writing much of the material, each composition is then shaped by the trio to find its finished form.

In recent years Lynne Arriale has found a home with the Dutch record label Challenge Records, and the three albums made with bassist Jasper Somsen with drummers E.J. Strickland or Jasper van Hulten, she has revealed a new depth and maturity in her work.

Her new album and fourth for the label, Being Human, introduces a new trio along with ten new compositions that reach deep into the heart and soul with music of a delicate and subtle beauty; and it was my great pleasure to be able to talk to Lynne about her music.

Your new album Being Human tackles the gamut of human emotions from courage, love, passion and faith. This is quite an undertaking and a large and wide-ranging topic to tackle. What drew you to the concept of humankind?

Being Human is my personal response to the world around us. The news is full of the things that divide us; I was looking for things that we all have in common and unite us. I wondered about the qualities that we share with our fellow human beings; what makes us do what we do, what are the feelings that make us human?

Several of the compositions are also dedicated to specific individuals including Greta Thunburg, Jacob Barnett, and poets Amanda Gorman and Malala Yousafzai. What drew you to these individuals and inspired you to dedicate these compositions to them?

I began with the feeling of “passion” or “curiosity,” as examples, and I thought about what these qualities would sound like in music. I tuned into the feeling of the quality and started writing. When I finished the compositions, I thought about people who represent these qualities. The dedications reflect my deep admiration for those who I feel personify the traits that inspired the music and have made our world better.

The album also debuts a new trio with Alon Near and Lukasz Zyta taking over bass and drum duties from Jasper Somsen and E.J. Strickland. What prompted this change in personnel, and how long have the new trio been together?

I treasured every moment playing with Jasper and E.J. and had beautiful experiences recording and performing with them over many years. The opportunity came up to play with Alon and Lukasz, and they brought a new energy to the group, and I am very happy about our musical chemistry. I am so grateful to play with such brilliant musicians throughout my career!

Being Human has a very different feeling from the albums with Jasper and E.J. From your perspective at the piano, how do you think that the two new members have changed the way you all perform as an ensemble?

Each musician in a group brings their own energy to the music, so it is inevitable that the music will change with different members in the group. That is part of the magic of improvised music. I know that my own musical process continues to grow and evolve, and playing with different musicians also affects me. One of the important qualities in the musicians I work with is a natural “conversational” approach to music. In our musical “conversation,” each member helps shape the sound of the composition. In our preparation, I share my vision of the tunes, as there are certain qualities that I’m looking for; however, there is still a very wide space for each musician’s unique, individual creative voice to shine.

The compositions, while all readily identifiable as written by yourself, have a rhythmic sensibility that again is different from that heard on Chimes of Freedom and The Lights Are Always On. Has the new trio changed the way in which you write or hear the melodic and rhythmic curve of the group?

I wrote the material before ever playing with Alon and Lukasz. I strive to continuously explore and grow as a composer. We, as humans, are constantly changing, and the same goes for my compositional process. It’s hard for me to step back and compare how I wrote a few years ago, as my focus is always on the present and the future. I hope to continue this growth and evolution throughout my life.

This is now your fourth album for Challenge Records with each having a specific concept and subject matter that you bring to the fore in your music. From the worldwide immigration crisis addressed in Chimes of Freedom and the life-changing events brought on by the pandemic in The Lights Are Always On, you have been unafraid to tackle such big topics head-on. Is it a case of the music demanding a concept as the compositions evolve, or do you start with the subject matter and develop the music from there?

I think both are intertwined. I have a general concept which inspires the composition, and sometimes, the composition influences and inspires the concept. I have selected these themes because of important social and societal issues that impact our lives. I’m very influenced by the world around me, and I express that through my writing.

Your relationship with Challenge Records goes back nearly six years. What made you decide to sign with a European label after a long period with the US-based Motéma imprint, and how does the creative process differ from working with Challenge?

I had a great experience being on Motema and was thrilled to become part of Challenge Records International. Everyone has been so supportive, and I appreciate their beautiful aesthetic and all of their work to bring a wide array of excellent artistry to the public.

As a leader you have chosen to work mostly with a trio. What is it about the piano trio that attracts you, and how do you keep the music sounding so new and exciting?

Thank you for your kind words; I just try to continue to experiment with new ideas; but mostly, I always try to compose and play from my heart.

I have recorded two quartet albums, Nuance with Randy Brecker (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Convergence with Bill McHenry (tenor sax). I love playing solo, duo, trio, and quartet; however, my main focus has been on the trio. I like the three-way interaction between the musicians, which creates a particular kind of musical dialog, and I love playing the melodies on the tunes.

You have been recording albums since the early 1990s, and my first encounter with your playing was on the outstanding album Arise released in 2002 with bassist Jay Anderson and Steve Davis on drums. How do you think that your music has developed from your early recordings?

Thanks; I feel more comfortable at the instrument; I hope my playing has evolved, with a wider palette of musical “colors,” and I constantly strive to listen, be in the moment and respond to the other musicians. This is a life-long process that requires constant attention and practice.

One observation that I have made in following your career is that you have now developed your own individual voice to such an extent as to render any influences virtually indiscernible. How did you get into music and playing the piano, and jazz in particular?

Thank you again. I started playing the piano by ear when I was three or four years old, and I would play songs that I heard on the radio. We had a little plastic toy piano, and that was my first encounter with music. I soon began studying but had no exposure or knowledge of jazz until I was in my mid 20’s. I studied classical piano at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music when I was growing up, and later with the brilliant concert pianist, Rebecca Penneys, from the time I was 17 to age 25. I was walking down the street one day, and I heard this thought in my mind: “you should study jazz.” I started taking lessons, and a whole new world opened up, and my journey began in this genre of music. What attracted me to jazz was that we have such great freedom to basically create a new composition in real-time. Our solos can be very different from performance to performance, based on our knowledge of the language of jazz. This is what makes this artform so magical to me!

In addition to your busy touring schedule, you are also involved in jazz education through conducting masterclasses and also as Professor of Jazz Studies and Director of Small Ensembles at The University of North Florida. What advice would you give to aspiring jazz musicians just about to embark on a career in music, and how do you see the music developing?

I am so fortunate to be a professor at the University of North Florida. The students are outstanding and eager to learn, and the faculty is world-class. I learn so much from teaching, and I also bring my personal experience and realizations about practice and performing to my students.

I would advise aspiring jazz musicians to learn the fundamentals of jazz very thoroughly, including learning many tunes and getting together with other musicians to play – whenever they can. This music is a social art form, and the experience of playing with others is vital.

I also would advise them to listen to many genres of music in order to have a very open and broad experience of music. The music industry has witnessed significant changes over the past 10-20 years, and a musician’s breadth of musical knowledge and experience will undoubtedly open great opportunities for them.

And finally, what plans do you have for the Lynne Arriale Trio going forward?

I look forward to going deeper into the music, reaching out to the listeners – from our hearts to theirs, and continuing to open and expand our musical horizons.