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Lara Driscoll Weaves Dreams Into Songs

Lara Driscoll plays Jazz UpFront Friday night
Maplewood Photography
Lara Driscoll plays Jazz UpFront Friday night.

Chicago jazz pianist and educator Lara Driscoll credits University of Illinois piano professor Chip Stephens for inspiring the title to her debut album "Woven Dreams."

Driscoll said Stephens would often tell her: "Sing the melody in your mind's ear and be a weaver of dreams."

"And that would stick with me,” said Driscoll from her Chicago home. “It perhaps refers to the idea that when you’re improvising, stay true to the melody or at least respect and know the melody before you start to play a tune.”

She said it goes to respecting the song's composer.

“But it’s also important when you’re improving to weave a thread through the harmony with your melody, meaning your own melodies you’re creating as well,” she added.

“Woven Dreams” is mostly a collection of originals, including the three-song suite “Forgiving – Black Dog Skirts Away.” She said a Village Vanguard performance by fellow Chicago pianist Fred Hersch with his group Trio + 2 was the inspiration for the suite. He had just come out of a coma.

“It was the one of the most unbelievable concerts I’d ever seen,” marveled Driscoll. “The performed the song ‘Black Dog Pays a Visit,’ which refers to the disease depression.”

She was blown away hearing the song live. When she returned home, she dug into Hersch compositions and found the song, where she learned the meaning behind the “Black Dog.”

“So, I decided write a reaction to it,” said Driscoll, adding, “The suite refers to the fact that we as a society don’t understand what depression is and we don’t handle it very well or talk about it in a way that is aware of the depth of how difficult it can be and how hard it is for the people around it.”

Driscoll choose three jazz standards to fill out the album, including “Autumn in New York” and “Just One of Those Things.” She also covered the Antonio Carlos Jobim classic “O Morro Nao Tem Vez.” The lyrics to the song otherwise known as “Favela” yearn for recognition for those who live in Rio’s worst slums. The melody is gorgeous and timeless, with a hint of sadness.

Driscoll’s version gives much room to her drummer and bass player, who give the bossa-nova classic a hip-hop feel. She said the idea came from her U of I days when her working group at the time would combine Brazilian and Argentine music.

“And so I wanted to have a different take on this song for that group, so we made it a little funkier with a little bit of a ‘Red Clay’ baseline or hip-hop influence,” she said.

Driscoll is also an educator who earned her master’s in jazz piano performance at McGill University in Montreal, Canada. She currently teaches at in Chicago at Loyola University, DePaul University, and Harold Washington College. She acknowledged the music resources she had attending Hersey High School in Arlington Heights and is acutely aware education funding disparities mean many students don’t have similar access to music and the arts.

“Of the City Colleges, Harold Washington has the most music happening, and a lot of students from all over the city come to that school to have an experience of going to college with music at the community college level, before they transfer or get their associates in music” said Driscoll.

“It’s really revealing to me in terms of what opportunities are lacking for a lot of students.”

She said many of her students have a lot of potential and drive but were not given those music opportunities pre-college.

“I feel for them, because now they’re trying to work, pay for their studies and it’s difficult to find the time that’s necessary to devote to an instrument, even if they want to,” added Driscoll.

The late Bloomington Center for the Performing Arts Director Tina Salamone was fond of saying that when young people have an instrument in their hands and/or were involved with the arts, it meant they weren’t involved in activity detrimental to their growth. Driscoll wholeheartedly agreed.

“If more people were aware of how much of an impact arts and music education could offer, we would probably change things very quickly,” she said.

Lara Driscoll performs at Jazz UpFront in Bloomington Friday night.

The entire interview with Lara Driscoll.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.