Jacqueline Schwab’s piano prowess has long been celebrated by many on the folk music scene and even by the likes of award-winning filmmaker Ken Burns.
For her performance at the Guilderland Public Library on Sept. 20, Schwab will use her talent to celebrate other cultures in “I Lift My Lamp -- Vintage Songs and Dances of Immigrant America: Ken Burns' Pianist Jacqueline Schwab in Concert.”
“ . . . In my family, there was an encouragement to try to get to know other cultures and to understand the world,” Schwab said.
Her preferred way to explore other cultures has always been music.
She’s been playing piano for as long as she can remember, starting in her hometown of Pittsburgh. Her grandmother was a classical pianist and taught Schwab how to play at a young age. While Schwab loved playing, she was attracted to a freer style: folk dance music.
“Partly because I was very shy in high school,” Schwab said, “and also, the music appealed to me in the way my mind works. People think that [folk music] is simple. It’s not really that simple. It’s just a different idiom then classical music,” Schwab said.
She also became interested in more improvisational playing, though not in the sense many might think.
“Not jazz improvising. People often equate the two, but there’s a lot of room for improvisation in many genres of music. If you can do it in one [genre], you can’t necessarily do it in another one,” Schwab said.
Because of her passion for folk music, she became a folk dance music pianist, co-founding the quartet Bare Necessities, which still performs today. Performing in the group fine-tuned her ear as well as her playing.
It’s also how she got her first job with Burns in the early 1990s. He had listened to one of the first Bare Necessities’ albums and sought her out to work on the soundtrack for documentaries such as “The Civil War” and “Mark Twain.”
Working with Burns changed Schwab’s life. He was always asking musicians to improvise based on a certain scene he was thinking of or working on.
“He swept me into the scenes that he was trying to [depict], just in a few words,” Schwab said.
The power to improvise around a story made a tremendous impact on Schwab’s career.
“I could just let it breathe, and that was really rewarding for me and for my own music,” Schwab said. “It just opened up my playing.”
Since then, she’s performed across the country, including at the White House, on “A Prairie Home Companion” and on the “Late Show with David Letterman.”
But for the past year or so, she’s been delving into more international music, focusing on that which has influenced her own playing and American culture on the whole.
“There’s a lot of music that became [American] music that was created by immigrants. A lot of Broadway Tin Pan Alley music was created by immigrants,” Schwab said.
Schwab said she also recognizes that the national conversation on the topic of immigration has become more heated in the past year or so. She wanted to contribute in some way -- a way that was positive rather than critical.
“I was feeling like I wanted to offer something. I don’t have money and I don’t have time, so what could I offer? Well that would be my music,” Schwab said.
In “I Lift My Lamp -- Vintage Songs and Dances of Immigrant America,” Schwab takes classic songs from Scotland, Ireland, Poland, France and eastern Europe and reimagines them on piano. For example, Schwab has reimagined for the piano a classic Irish song meant to be played on fiddle.
It’s a way to discuss and honor cultures that have had an impact on American music, and possibly open more dialogue on what immigrants have brought to this country through the years.
“Let’s listen to some music here and let’s see if you can fall in love with it,” Schwab said.
Schwab hopes that just as people like trying international foods, they'll be interested in giving international music a chance.
'I Lift My Lamp -- Vintage Songs and Dances of Immigrant America'
WHEN: 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 20
WHERE: Guilderland Public Library, 2228 Western Ave.
TICKETS: Free admission
MORE INFO: 518-456-2400