Jazz Police: Simple Gifts
Contributed by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor  

November 2005
Jazz Police

"Larry McDonough is an
original much in the tradition
of Dave Brubeck, and
McDonough's piano stylings
are intimate and innovative.
There is a touch of humor
blended within the time
signatures that adds to the
charm and intricate playing
McDonough shares with the
audience.” (Lee Prosser, Jazz Review)

The life of a fulltime musician can be a precarious juggling act, balancing time for family, performance, composition, career management, and often other work that generates income to feed the creative fire. When a professional musician is also an active Legal Aid attorney, the balancing act is more of an Olympian effort. Yet pianist Larry McDonough conveys nothing but spirited equilibrium in his far-ranging compositions and off-beat arrangements. Maybe it’s his ability to turn time inside out and maintain harmonic integrity, arranging familiar pieces in 5/4 or 7/4 time, giving them a different sound and feel without losing the underlying melody. With his working quartet (Richard Terrill on saxes, Craig Matarrese on bass, and Chaz Draper on drums), McDonough will celebrate the release of Simple Gifts, starting at the Twisted Grill in Hudson, WI on November 19, moving to the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis on November 23, and then on to Mankato at the Sugar Room on December 10.

Larry McDonough’s new recording serves up divergent delights, from a reconstructed holiday chestnut (“Ode to Joy”) to inside-out renditions of pop and jazz standards (Steely Dan’s “Aja,” “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” “My Favorite Things,”) to the harmonically and rhythmically altered traditional melodies of the title track and children’s song, “Red River Valley” (transformed as “Dame la Mano”). Add in a trio of original tunes (including a tribute to “Lady Day”) and you have Simple Gifts—but these are hardly simple tracks.

Larry has a feathery touch that recalls Bill Evans but with more fingers, a left hand that alternatingly propels and sings, dazzling two-handed runs with clear articulation from every digit, a unique approach to time that makes the most worn carol or standard a new adventure, and a penchant for well-placed quotes as diverse as “Alice in Wonderland” (on “Ode to Joy”), “Take Five” (on “Simple Gifts”), and “Get Back Jack” (on “Aja”). He also proves to have a warm tenor voice, on display on two tracks (“They Can’t Take That Away From Me” and “Simple Gifts”).

Among the original tunes, “Tuscarora” represents a project close to McDonough’s heart-- the Wellstone Action program that funds activities to continue the work of the late Paul and Sheila Wellstone. Named after a northern Minnesota lake, “Tuscarora” is dedicated to the Wellstones, as are the proceeds from McDonough’s earlier recording, Tuscarora: Short Stories for Jazz Piano. With a quartet here rather than as originally recorded solo, Terrill’s tenor sax takes the melodic lead, lulling the listener like waves lapping on that northwoods lake. Another original, “Elie’s Theme,” reflects McDonough’s ability to merge his life mission—to support those with difficult life circumstances and special needs—with his music projects, with stellar results: From the Fingersteps Project, a program that encourages children with disabilities to compose music, McDonough expanded a four-note phrase by project student Elie Gorman. “I envisioned it as a brushes ballad, but the soloing took it to a gospel groove,” explains McDonough, who adds a quote from “Go Tell It on the Mountain” in his solo.

If there is one gem among the jewels from McDonough and company, it is the closing track, “My Favorite Things,” revisiting Coltrane with a driving piano/bass ostinato and Draper’s clicking vamp, leading into McDonough’s Monkish deconstruction of time. Draper adds to the drama with a series of heavy bass drum beats that set up Terrill’s energetic solo on soprano. First slipping into a tribal dirge, Draper cuts loose with an all-out firestorm solo, and with a return of the piano-bass ostinato, the band closes with a final crash and rumble.

Simple Gifts proves to be anything but “simple”— but, for those fortunate enough to hear this music, it is indeed a gift.

The Wisconsin CD Release Party for the Larry McDonough Quartet’s Simple Gifts takes place Saturday, November 19, 8:30-11:30 pm at the Twisted Grille, 501 Second St., Hudson, WI; http://thetwistedgrille.com. The Minneapolis celebration will be held at the Dakota (1010 Nicollet Mall) on November 23rd at 7 pm (see www.dakotacooks.com). In Mankato on December 10, the quartet’s party will take place at the Sugar Room (formerly The Jazz Club) at 200 Walnut Street East at 9 pm (507) 625-8175). Simple Gifts will be available from the Electric Fetus (Minneapolis, St. Cloud and Duluth) and CD Baby (www.cdbaby.com). For more information about Larry McDonough, his upcoming gigs, and CD ordering information, visit www.larrymcdonoughjazz.homestead.com