Hamline-Midway "Music Man" a Renaissance Kind of Guy
By Arnold Stead
"Larry McDonough is not only a superb pianist-composer-singer, but also a tenants attorney with Minneapolis Legal Aid. Ken Stone of NewsNight Minnesota has described Larry as his idea of a Renaissance man.' Said Stone: "Alright, here's the question. Does being an attorney for Legal Aid and an accomplished jazz musician make you a Renaissance man? Well, I think it does. Larry McDonough certainly would qualify in my book."
I recently heard McDonough and trumpeter Phil Holm on a cold Monday night at the Dakota Bar & Grill. Their performance was being aired live on KBEM 88.5 FM radio. Larry and I chatted after the first set. I asked him about the challenges of working in two such divergent fields as law and jazz.
He says he feels "blessed" to be doing work he loves. The drawbacks of his split agenda are, in Larry's view, relatively minor. He elaborated a bit on those drawbacks. "I'm probably not as good a player, technically, as I was when I was playing six nights a week rather than one or two. But I'm happier. When I was playing full-time, I was always worrying about whether or not I'd get a particular gig or be the best or be called again."
McDonough began playing piano in the fourth grade, clarinet in the fifth, and trumpet in the sixth. In 1978 he received a B.S. in Music Education from the University of Minnesota, with piano and trumpet as his principal instruments and taking courses in theory and composition. After working for a few years as a high school band director, Larry returned to college to study law. His work as an attorney has won him praise as one of the 100 Who Made a Difference' in the William Mitchell College of Law one hundred year history.
Talking with Larry, I felt the quiet intensity the listener encounters in his music. The intensity provides a background for the pianist's innovative, playful, and deciding original reshaping of jazz and pop classics. By changing the time signatures of standards like "If I Only Has a Brain," "My Favorite Things," "Days of Wine and Roes," "Take the A Train," "Gob Bless America," "Star Spangled Banner," " Summer Time," and others from 4/4 to 5/4, or occasionally 7/4, McDonough offers his audience a swinging and provocative music.
But what makes his sound most engaging is its wide appeal. The listener with formal musical training is sure to appreciate its technical innovations, while the untrained ear can tap his or her foot and enjoy some playful renditions of familiar tunes. When Larry does "If I Only Has a Brain," you don't need formal training to hear snippets from three other Wizard of Oz tunes.
McDonough's work has aroused the comparisons to more celebrated, and even legendary, musicians that music critics are prone to make. He is most often compared to the late Bill Evans, Dave Brubeck, and Herbie Hancock. Larry cites Evans as a conscious influence, and the cerebrally intense yet intimate sound of Evan's work with the late Miles Davis - and as a soloist - can be heard in McDonough's playing.
The critical praise for Larry's first CD, Small Steps, a solo collection of original compositions and jazz/pop standards, is unanimous. Lee Prosser or Jazz Review has this to say: "Larry McDonough is an original much in the tradition of Dave Brubeck ... Small Steps is a welcome jazz solo collection in a field so often overcrowded with commercial jingles." British critic Ian Webb, writing for Blues on Stage, echoes Prosser's comments when he speaks of the CD's title, a McDonough original composition. Webb says: "Small Steps' is a fascinating piece full of surprising changes of pattern where each new facet of the music seems like another turn of a kaleidoscope, a related but very different pattern to the last." Of the CD as a whole, Webb writes: "This is an excellent album of very modern, near avante garde jazz, it is music to listen to, it really repays repeated playing." Tom Surowicz remarked in the Star Tribune: "RECOMMENDED: A thoughtful, provocative pianist who ... turns familiar tunes inside out. McDonough's ... darn good at thinking on his feet. On Eric Clapton's Layla,' he slyly quotes songs by George Harrison, whose then-wife Patti was Clapton's inspiration for the song. It's the oddest, and best, version since John Fahey and Terry Robb tackled the epic on two acoustic guitars in 1984."
The title piece of the Small Steps CD was originally written in response to John Coltrane's "Giant Steps." But these days when Larry plays the tune he thinks of his youngest daughter, Rosie, who is disabled. He says that she has to learn "physically and mentally in small steps." The pianist-composer wrote the liner notes for the CD, which speak eloquently of his three children and the genesis of his music.
When I asked Larry about the future and any goals he might have, he framed his response with a story from his past. In the late 1970's and early 80's, when he first began playing professionally as a sideman, his favorite venue was Night Train. "It was an old railroad car on Como that has since burned down." The club's owner wanted the pianist to move into the spotlight as a soloist, but Larry didn't think he was ready. "I told him I was just a sideman." But the owner continued to prod McDonough until he took the plunge. Larry said, with a sheepish grin: "Back then I needed to be pushed, and I think I still do."
Larry McDonough plans on releasing another solo and/or duo CD this summer, and next year you can expect ti hear a CD with his quintet, Off Beat, that features Phil Holm on trumpet, saxman Jeff King, bassist Bruce Heine, drummer Dave Stanoch, and Larry on piano and vocals.
Small Steps is currently available at independent stores throughout Minnesota and on line at