Larry McDonough and Richard Terrill: poetry in jazz

Jazz pianist Larry McDonough
For his new compositions, jazz pianist Larry McDonough drew from a variety of influences, from classic songs and works of art to musings of children. "All of my music evolves through various stages and instrumentation. I write at the piano, so the pieces begin as solo piano works," McDonough said.
Photo courtesy of Carol Bergquist

When accomplished jazz musicians begin to compose new works of music, they might draw from a variety of influences, from classic songs and works of art to musings of children.

Such is the wide stream of ideas that inspired pianist Larry McDonough and saxophonist and poet Richard Terrill on "Solitude," a new recording of 11 tracks that springs from jazz standards, classical music, Minnesota poetry and children with disabilities.

They perform tonight at St. Paul's Artists Quarter. I spoke with McDonough about the CD, a graceful recording that connects generations and styles. Here's our exchange:

David Cazares: The music on this CD is very warm and inviting, which for me owes to the combination of instruments. Do the contrasting sounds of the piano, with its wide harmonic range, and the saxophone, with its tones that evoke the human voice, lend themselves to your work or does that combination lead you to create music that lends itself to the instruments?

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Larry McDonough: All of my music evolves through various stages and instrumentation. I write at the piano, so the pieces begin as solo piano works. I then take them to my sax player Richard Terrill, or to my full quartet, and as a result of what each player adds the possibilities for the piece expand exponentially. In addition, the more you get to know another player, just like the more you get to know another person, you gain insight into not only what they like and are good at doing, but also what they can add to enhance what you are doing. So, it becomes a circular experience, with the music shaping the players and the players shaping the music.

Cazares: How long have the two of your been playing together and what sparked your collaborations?

McDonough: I met Richard in 2001 during a Minnesota tour for the release of my first solo piano CD "Small Steps." I wanted to perform in various duos as I traveled, so when I was planning some shows in Mankato, I asked Joe Tougas, who covered music for the Mankato Free Press, whom I should contact. He recommended Richard, and we hit it off right away. We both loved the works of pianist Bill Evans and saxophonist John Coltrane, so we had a common base from which to start. Richard and I became the nucleus of the Larry McDonough Quartet (LMQ) along with bassist Craig Matarrese and drummer Chaz Draper. While Richard has recorded with me on two LMQ recordings ("Simple Gifts" CD and "Live at Minnesota Connection" DVD), Richard and I had not done a duo recording in all of these years, so it seemed time to do it.

Cazares: The juxtaposition of poetry and jazz strikes me as a nice touch. How do the two art forms enhance each other? Do you intend to make the music literary and the poetry musical or does that occur naturally?

McDonough: Music and speech have such a strong connection. Most people associate the two together without thinking, as hearing a melody reminds one of its lyrics and vice versa. Often the best lyrics are poems that can stand on their own.

On "Solitude" there are two poems written by Richard, one that came from the music and the other that led to the music. Richard's poem "Bill Evans" travels the heights and depths of this amazing pianist and composer; as a result, we set this poem to Evans' signature ballad "Some Other Time."

I composed "Coming Late to Rachmaninoff" after reading Richard's poem "Coming Late to Rachmaninoff" from the book of the same name, winner of the 2004 Minnesota Book Award for Poetry. The poem's speaker, parked on the side of a road in a suburban wasteland, reflects on the beauty of the Adagio from Rachmaninoff's Second Symphony in E Minor. I borrowed themes from the piece but placed them in a different order and in 11/4 time. On the recording, Richard reads his poem over our performance of the piece. At our release at the Artists' Quarter, my wife, Carol Bergquist, will join us on flute, playing under Richard's reading and then in counterpoint with him and me throughout the rest of the piece.

Cazares: How did the Fingersteps Project come about, and what do the children bring to the music that you might not have envisioned?

McDonough: The Fingersteps Project was the creation of software designer Dan Moffatt, who developed a program in which children with disabilities write melodies and perform music using adaptive computer hardware and software. My daughter, Rosie, was one of the children who used the software the write some short melody fragments, a series of notes, without chords or lyrics. I took a number of those fragments and turned them into pieces by adding chords and rhythms. Sometimes I repeated or inverted the melodies to expand them, but I never changed the melody notes created by the children.

What the children brought to the music was the absence of rigidity that can result from formal musical training. In other words, they had no sense of what they should or should not do. For me, their melodies drove me to write differently. For example, "A Rose for Two" is based on fragments from Rosie and Dan's children, Jennifer and Patrick.

The piece begins in E minor and moves to A minor in a single phrase and then moves to a second section where the tonality, or key, changes every bar. Rosie, who is now 19 and has disabilities of cerebral palsy and developmental delay, will come and join us on African drum when we play the song in the first set.

Another example, "Solitude" is based on fragments from three other children. This piece moves from Bb minor to its polar opposite key, E minor. I would not have thought of these structures on my own. My work on these pieces also has changed how I approach composition. In "Sirocco" (the first track on the CD, which I wrote on my own) I hear elements drawn from the different Fingersteps pieces.

Cazares: Given that many jazz musicians (or perhaps younger ones) seem to be turning away from standards in favor of modern forms, how important is it for you to focus on standards?

McDonough: It may seem trite to quote George Santayana, who wrote in "The Life of Reason" that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." A variation on this is that those who cannot remember the past are condemned to ignore what was worthy of longevity. Turning away from jazz standards discards a wealth of material that still can be the basis of modern improvisation.

Richard and I play a mix of original compositions and new arrangements of standards. I can find freshness in standards by changing the meter or time signature, harmonies, tempos, and rhythms, so as to retain the essence of the piece while presenting it in a novel way.

Cazares: The music on this recording is eclectic with selections from Rachmaninoff to Bill Evans, the Middle East and even the "Star Spangled Banner." Do they in some way speak to the multiple influences in jazz and the varied character of the nation?

McDonough: Very much so. Many of the greatest jazz and classical composers drew on themes of different nations and ethnic groups within nations. Too often composers do not reach far enough away from themselves for influences. I try to keep an open mind, thinking that any type of music from any period can be a source for composition and improvisation.

On our CD, we take a couple of historical pieces but move them out of their commonly understood context to provoke thought about their meaning. "God Bless America" often is presented as a blindly patriotic rally cry, so I recast the piece in a Middle Eastern 5/4 rhythm to make it more inclusive. I also arranged the "Star Spangled Banner" more as a Gershwin-like ballad to reflect the mixed emotions accompanying war and love of country.

Cazares: What would you like people to come away with after hearing your show?

McDonough: A sense that in music and life, anything is possible when you keep an open mind. Children with disabilities and no musical training can create music that challenges professional musicians. A new presentation of an old piece can change how one thinks of the piece and life in general. But, in the end, I would hope listeners do not think too much. Duke Ellington once said, "If it sounds good and feels good, then it IS good! One does not have to understand it to enjoy it, but understanding it makes it even more enjoyable.