McDonough brings jazz innovation to the Northland
By Kyle Eller
"Take a hint of Dave Brubeck's rhythmic magic, a touch of innovative piano technique, a fascination with fusion harmonies and influences from the Beatles to "The Simpsons" to Chick Corea and wrap it all up in a philosophical Twin Cities band-teacher-turned-do-gooder-lawyer, and what do you get? Larry McDonough. He'll be at Beaner's next weekend.
McDonough grew up in Minnesota seeing big band leaders in St. Paul during the 1970s, and after graduating from the University of Minnesota played professionally while teaching high school band. He says a liberal streak led him to keep music in his life while he went back to law school to do public interest work -- work he's still doing.
"These days, I represent tenants and sue slum lords," along with teaching a few law classes at the university, he said during a phone interview.
When his three daughters were born, the youngest with disabilities, he put music on the back burner and cut back on his hours at Legal Aid. And when that youngest daughter reached school age, rather than going back to Legal Aid full time, he opted to spend that extra time getting back into performing in public.
"It probably looks hectic from the outside, but the amount of time I'm committing to music is not unlike someone being in a bowling league," he said. "... You're doing it because it's an important thing in your life."
"At this point in my life, I'm probably the happiest I've been with the balance," he adds.
Not being a full-time musician relying on gigs to pay the mortgage has given a number of advantages -- a chance to play with highly skilled people doing gigs he wants, playing what he wants.
And what he wants to play is innovative jazz piano, as reflected in two compact discs -- his 1999 solo effort "Small Steps" and this year's "Live, Cooking at the Dakota" with the jazz quartet Off Beat.
McDonough and Off Beat are bringing their sound to the Northland with two gigs next weekend: Friday, May 10, at Beaner's and Saturday in Grand Marais at the Arrowhead Center for the Arts.
Playing in odd times
Like any jazz arranger, McDonough uses alternate harmonizations to make intriguing sounds, but McDonough's innovation also includes playing with time signatures -- he often arranges familiar pieces in 5/4 or 7/4 time -- and doing a Bill Evans-style dual-hand piano style emphasizing emulated bass solos that the right hand plays off of.
McDonough says the changing time signatures does change a piece -- a little.
"It changes the feel, but I think it's not as dramatic as one might think it would be," he said. "... Essentially, it changes the rhythmic underpinnings of the tune."
So playing "My Favorite Things" from "The Sound of Music" in 5/4 (that is, with five beats in a measure) is not terribly radical -- that time signature can be felt almost like the more common 3/4 or 4/4 signatures.
And that's one of the reasons McDonough applies the technique to familiar pieces, including "Take the A Train," which is on the "Live, Cooking" CD in 5/4: It's educational for a listening public accustomed to pop music played in standard 4/4.
"I think a lot of people, even musicians, think of 5/4, 7/4 and 9/4 as being strange," even though they are often used in classical music, he said. "... It's been interesting for people to hear pieces they know in other time signatures and hear it's not weird at all."
You can tap your foot to it and maybe even dance to it, he says.
And it's an eye-opener for the musician, too.
"What it does for me, anyway, is it freshens up tunes I've played a long time because it forces me to rethink them," he said.
Improvising is no longer sleepwalking, because you have to think to get your bearings.
A good example of McDonough's harmonic work is his arrangement of Herbie Hancock's 1960s song "Cantaloupe Island." McDonough takes it from four-beat measures to seven-beat measures, but he also applies modal chords with the third -- the middle note that determines whether a chord is in minor or major -- removed. This technique -- which Hancock used in his later work -- allows an improvising soloist to switch between major and minor scales at will.
Another unique point about McDonough's playing that piano geeks will appreciate is his left hand. While he was playing with a trio, he had to emulate the bass lines on the piano.
"It just occurred to me that if I'm going to play bass lines, why don't I think of my left hand as a bass player?" he said.
So he started to take solos. He found that soloing in the left hand was different than soloing with the right hand, demanding different fingering and technique.
Much like jazz ensembles will feature different musicians improvising off of each other, he found that he could "trade solos" with himself, playing the right hand off of the left, like he's two different people. McDonough said it's not on the same level but is somewhat like what Bill Evans did in "Conversations with Myself" to earn his first Grammy.
If all that sounds complicated, it is -- but don't worry. McDonough is not following the negative stereotype of jazz innovators who perform their creative alchemy in a vacuum, churning out work nobody can understand. His music is still music and is plenty enjoyable, and that's the way he means it.
"You can be a little innovative with these things and still have them be listenable," he said.
Making the band
Playing with Off Beat is something McDonough cherishes, even though there are pros and cons with ensemble work compared with solo performing.
The solo performer can "be sort of a megalomaniac," McDonough said, changing tempos and styles at a whim. That's different when you're coordinating a five-piece band.
The advantages are sound -- other instruments provide a lot of instrumentation possibilities -- and subrhythms. What is a subtle change of feel with a solo pianist is a dramatic change when you add a drummer, a bass player, a sax player and a trumpet player.
All the members of Off Beat -- trumpeter Jeff Levine, bassist Bruce "Pooch" Heine, percussionist Dave Stanoch and saxophonist Jeff King (who won't be at the Duluth gig) -- all have solid jazz pedigrees and demanding schedules, so each outing for the group is important to McDonough.
Talking to him, you get the feeling that the music is that way, too, now that he's happy with the balance in his life.
Take the title track from "Small Steps." Originally envisioned 20 years ago as a musical response to John Coltrane's classic album "Giant Steps," the song has taken on many meanings over time.
Watching his youngest daughter progress through the difficult task of learning to walk put a new face on it.
"In a lot of ways, that's how we all evolve through life," he said. "In a series of small steps."
News to Use
Larry McDonough and Off Beat will play from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, May 10, at Beaner's (cover charge is $5).
The next night, the group will perform at 7 p.m. in Grand Marais, as part of the Second Annual Grand Marais Jazz Festival at the Arrowhead Center for the Arts, where tickets range from $6 to $12.
Opening for the group will be the George Maurer Group, another group from the Twin Cities, making a return trip to the festival. For box office details on the festival, call (218) 387-1284.