Jazz at Its Best:
Larry McDonough’s Fourth Release Is a Gift for the Ears
By Bill Stieger
Photo by Brad Stauffer

The Villager
November 16-29, 2005

Highland Park jazz pianist
and attorney Larry McDonough
is not an easy guy to pigeonhole.
Think “jazz pianist,” and the
image of a hard-living hipster
in sunglasses comes to mind. 
Think “lawyer,” and it’s a
satchel-swinging dealmaker
dressed in a Brooks Brothers
suit, yakking into a cell phone.
Neither image has anything
to do with McDonough.

McDonough is a family man whose daytime hours are spent working as an attorney for the Legal Aid Society of Minneapolis. “Basically, I sue slumlords and try to prevent evictions,” he said. “I do see the dark side of life as it’s lived by people in poverty. It influences my music, I think for the better. Every note can’t be about the sunny side of life. I think the mix of emotions adds nuance to my compositions.”

McDonough will mark the release of his latest CD, “Simple Gifts,” from 7:00 to 11:00 p.m. Wednesday, November 23, at the Dakota Jazz Club, 1010 Nicollet Mall,  Minneapolis. He’ll perform with his quartet, which incudes Richard Terrill on saxophone, Craig Matarrese on bass and Chaz Draper on drums. Donations will be accepted for Wellstone Action, which carries on the work of Paul and Sheila Wellstone.

McDonough plays out of the Bill Evans style, with rich harmonies and a tendency toward the lyrical. In addition to compositions of his own creation, he likes to tackle pop tunes like Steely Dan’s “Asia” or traditional folk songs like “Red River Valley.” However, McDonough often changes the time signatures of the originals, leaving listeners feeling pleasantly disoriented as the revised rhythm leads them into uncharted musical territory.

“These days I find myself playing 4/4 time less and less,” McDonough said. “I discovered that changing the time signature of a standard tune freshens it up and adds tension. The concept really opened up some creative doors.”

McDonough, who was born in Buffalo, New York, and grew up in Richfield, Minnesota, has a bachelor’s degree in music education from the University of Minnesota. It was during his years at the U that he caught the bug for jazz.

“There were a lot of great musicians studying at the U at the time,” he said. “Guys like trumpeter Dave Jensen and trombonist Dave Graf. I was in the university’s third jazz band, under director Lance Strickland, who was just terrific. He wrote all of our arrangements. I learned a lot from him.”

After graduation, McDonough took a job as the assistant band director at Edison High School in Minneapolis. It was during that time that he began performing solo piano at nightclubs throughout the Twin Cities.

“I was playing at a place in St. Paul called  Night Train,” he said. “I was backing up singers at the time, but the club’s owner, Bruce Iverson, asked me to bring in a trio and book it under my name. At first I said no, because it scared the hell out of me, but Bruce gave me a kick in the butt. If it wasn’t for him, I might’ve never been a band leader.”

McDonough stayed at Edison for two years, then left to attend William Mitchell College of Law during the day, while continuing to play jazz clubs in the evening. “I enjoyed being a band director,” he said, “but I wanted to be connected with helping people on a social level. I went to law school with that purpose in mind. I know it sounds corny, but I was on a mission.”

McDonough passed the bar exam in 1983 and moved to Little Falls to work with Legal Aid in that region. “I worked with a lot of poor farmers,” he said. “There were a lot of foreclosures at the time. There was a lot of work for me up there.”

McDonough put his music on hold during those years, though he continued to practice and play in a Little Falls civic orchestra. He was also newly married and raising his daughters.

McDonough returned to St. Paul in 1986, taking a job with Legal Aid of Minneapolis, where he has been employed ever since. He is also an adjunct law professor at the University of Minnesota.

“I didn’t really get back into playing music until the ’90’s,” he said. “That’s when I began to play piano with Bozo Allegro. I made one recording with them, and their producer, Mark Milner, suggested I make a solo recording (“Small Steps,” Marx Music), which really brought me back to jazz again.”

“Simple Gifts” is McDonough’s fourth release and perhaps his best, owing much to the deft ensemble work of Terrill, Matarrese and Draper. “Those guys are all from Mankato,” McDonough said. “I played a gig down there with Terrill, who was introduced to me by a friend. Terrill is an English professor at Mankato State. He knew both Matarrese and Draper.

“These guys have helped shape my music, just from their input,” he said. “I’ve had more fun playing with this group than any other. I guess the best things in life are purely incidental.”