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With Brass Lassie, Laura MacKenzie brings muscle to her music

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Brass Lassie is a 10-piece band playing Scottish, Irish, and French music.
Brass Lassie is a 10-piece band playing traditional Scottish, Irish and French music, using both the standard instruments of flute, pipes, fiddle and concertina, with the addition of a four-member horn section.
Courtesy Brass Lassie

Laura MacKenzie, known for the fleet-fingered dexterity with which she plays flute, concertina and bagpipes, is trying something new — by adding some muscle to her music. 

Her new group, Brass Lassie, features a four-piece horn section. It's a 10-member big band, almost entirely made up of women.

"I'm not even sure how this happened," said MacKenzie, sitting in her St. Paul kitchen. "How did I make this happen? I don't know!" 

Laura MacKenzie and Patrice Pakiz in MacKenzie’s St. Paul home.
Laura MacKenzie and Patrice Pakiz in MacKenzie's St. Paul home.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

MacKenzie, a Northfield native, has enjoyed a decades-long international career. She's appeared on A Prairie Home Companion, put out many albums and studied ethnomusicology.

Adding brass to folk music is not that unusual for studio recordings, she said, "but not many people have added horn sections to live bands. It's really, I think, pretty unique, so far." 

Brass Lassie was 20 years in the making. Some of MacKenzie's dreams came with a soundtrack of traditional music, "enhanced and enlivened" by a big band. 

"As traditional unaccompanied music, the tunes and the songs do have a fragility to them," she said. "And here we have added this meaty horn arrangement, and the rhythm section. I've pretty carefully selected the tunes and the medleys and the songs as traditional music that can bear up to this kind of treatment." 

  Brass Lassie debuted last year at the Minnesota Scottish Fair and performed this year at the State Fair. The band's fall concert is this Sunday evening at the McNally Smith Auditorium in downtown St. Paul. 

Patrice Pakiz, an old friend of MacKenzie's who plays keyboards in the band, first heard about the idea for Brass Lassie  20 years ago.

"Laura's just been tenacious about it, and finally just found the perfect people," she said. "This brass section is just great, and the concept of being mainly women is just icing on the cake." 

Only the drummer and the bassist are men. Pakiz said the musicians bring experience from different performance styles, ranging from classical to show tunes. There is also a wide spread of ages. 

There is still a great deal for Brass Lassie to do, however, before Laura MacKenzie's dream is fully realized. It starts by playing more gigs.

"We are going to be seeking more venues and festivals. And we must, must, must make a studio recording as well," MacKenzie said. 

Such recordings usually lose money, she said, but they are needed for promotion and of course for fans to buy at concerts. No matter what, it appears we will be hearing a lot more of Brass Lassie.