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Festival Profile, Mary Louise Knutson: Working the Magic from Solo to Big Band

TCJF Twin Cities
Mary Louise Knutson Trio © Andrea Canter

© Jon Morgan

As fortunate as we are to have an opportunity at each year’s Twin Cities Jazz Festival to hear legends like McCoy Tyner or Ellis Marsalis, along with younger stars such as Anat Cohen or Joey Alexander, what may be as impressive is the sheer vitality of the local jazz scene put on display annually. For example, if an attendee chose to focus entirely on the piano, the options would run the stylistic and generational spectrum, beginning with the precocious talents of Jordan Anderson and Will Kjeer, working through the next generation or two with Javi Santiago, Ted Godbout and Bryan Nichols, then on to more established veterans like Laura Caviani and Mary Louise Knutson. This is merely one instrument, in fact a small sample of the pianists that will be performing in downtown Saint Paul and, one might argue, a significantly underrated jazz scene on a national level.

Mary Louise Knutson © Andrea Canter

It is difficult to classify the Minneapolis-based Knutson as underappreciated, yet she somehow manages to stay seemingly low-profile, while remaining in high demand among musicians. Since becoming active on the Twin Cities jazz scene in the 90s, Knutson has kept a fairly involved itinerary. She has performed in countless configurations, including both the JazzMN Orchestra and Minnesota Orchestra, supported numerous musicians playing in town, accompanied vocalists such as Connie Evingson and Debbie Duncan, and toured with the charismatic Doc Severinsen’s Big Band.

Mary Louise Knutson with Phil Hey and Gordy Johnson © Andrea Canter

On Thursday evening (June 22), the Mary Louise Knutson Trio with bassist Gordon Johnson and drummer Phil Hey will be showcased at Vieux Carre’. Like the trios of Bill Charlap or Brad Mehldau, working together over an extended amount of time has built a high level of musical empathy and trust. “When I’m working with people I’ve played with for years, there’s a knowing, an ease, a groove we can all fall into that’s very comfortable,” Knutson explains. “Since we’re familiar with each other’s tendencies, like phrasing, rhythmic and melodic choices, it makes it easy to react in a complementary way when someone else is improvising. It’s pretty magical at times.”

However, like many leaders that employ musicians that are themselves in a multitude of projects, Knutson must occasionally hire other rhythm section players to work in her trio. “When I work with people I’ve encountered less or never before, I know not to expect my arrangements or compositions to be the same as it is with more regular bandmates,” Knutson clarifies. “You give people a little forgiveness when they’re playing your music for the first time. But, everyone has different strengths, so it might be wonderful in ways that it wasn’t before.”

Mary Louise with Debbie Duncan (JazzMN Orchestra) © Andrea Canter

Working among musicians that favor spontaneous creation tends to necessitate an elevated sense of awareness. In 2003 the Walker Art Center commissioned avant-garde pianist Matthew Shipp’s trio to play live accompaniment to Patrick Gaucher’s film Combinations, which ostensibly likened jazz to boxing. Knutson feels this is an apt comparison, and suggests another sports metaphor. “While backing an improviser, I find myself slightly more alert in order to go with the new flow. It’s kind of like playing tennis. You don’t know how the ball will be returned to you, so you keep bouncing around a bit too so you can react quickly,” Knutson suggests. “Ultimately, it can be a thrilling experience to make it through some charted and uncharted territory with some new players.”

Every year Knutson plays a handful of solo performances, most recently at Vieux Carre’ in April. Performing alone represents an entirely different set of risks and rewards, yet remains enjoyable despite the high stakes. “I do love the challenge of playing solo, and yet there is a greater responsibility since you’re covering everything. Yes, I prepare differently,” Knutson admits. “When you play solo you have to rearrange all of your left hand voicings so you can create some sort of rhythm that is usually covered by the bass and drums. And you have to do it with ease so you don’t have to think about it while you’re trying to improvise with your right hand. It takes a lot of practice and sometimes I just cross a tune off the list because there’s no chance I’ll be able to execute it well.”

Mary Louise with Gordy Johnson © Andrea Canter

Yet, what entices most pianists, including Knutson, is the existential galvanization that can occur when one is left to their own devices. “The thing I really like, though, is that I’m free to change the form of the tune at any moment, extend the intro, extend the ending, change styles, change tempos, screw up and add a beat or a bar here or there,” Knutson enthuses. “It’s a very flexible medium. Plus, I don’t have to prepare charts or set lists for other players, or send emails about what’s expected on the gig!”

Like many pianists of her caliber, Knutson is a highly sought accompanist. She has worked quite often with local favorites Evingson and Duncan, and will be performing with vocalist Kevin Mahogany at the Dunsmore Room in August.  She has also recently worked with guitarist David Singley for his CD release show at Studio Z. “I love working with vocalists (and lead instrumentalists). That makes me a side-musician and I do enjoy that role just as much as being a leader, but in different ways,” Knutson explains. “As a backing musician, I always try to hear what the leader’s vibe or style is and try to match and support it as much as possible. Are they formal and like things neat and tidy? Or, are they casual and like things a little raw? Are they into blues, swing, bebop, hardbop, modal, free, ECM, pop, Latin? Whatever it is, I try to bring out that musical vocabulary. As a leader there’s more responsibility to shape your vision for every tune and the entire experience for the audience. So, it’s not necessarily playing with a vocalist that changes my approach as it is the role of being a leader verses a side-musician.”

With two recordings in her discography as a leader, 2001’s Call Me When You Get There and 2011’s In The Bubble, both of which include Johnson and Hey as well as drummers/percussionists Gregg Schutte, Craig Hara, Marc Rio and Marc Anderson, Knutson is not one to make an annual pilgrimage to the recording studio. Fortunately, she has begun to work on new material. “It has been a while since I’ve recorded,” Knutson admits. “But you’ve caught me at a time when I’m getting the urge to work on a new project again. I just wrote a new groovy blues for my upcoming Twin Cities Jazz Fest performance at Vieux Carre’. It’s the first thing I’ve written since my last record and I’m really excited to play it with Gordon Johnson and  Phil Hey. who will perform it while sight reading it for the first time, too! Other than that, I’ve been in this great place of wanting to practice and write again. That desire is hard to come by when life is so busy, but it’s magically back and I’m eager to find out what it will bring!”

Mary Louise, 2016 TC Jazz Festival © Andrea Canter

While each of her recordings is comprised of half original material and half standard repertoire, Knutson admits that at times, composing can be a painstaking exercise for her. She has literally taken as long as several months to work out some pieces once the initial sketch of an idea is in place. “If I’m in the mood to compose, I do try to show up at the piano for at least an hour every day. Often, I’ll allow my hands to wander across the keys, pressing down any key, any cluster of notes, any rhythm, sort of like what a child would do in their innocence and absence of knowledge,” Knutson explains. “I attempt to be curious about what I’m hearing rather than judgmental. I try not to play any familiar chord voicings or harmonic patterns. I allow myself to fall into a rhythm, a melody, or a harmonic progression by surprise. And when something piques my interest, I write it down. What appears first might be melody, harmony, or rhythm. It doesn’t matter. Then I play with it and see if it can be developed. If it goes nowhere, then I leave it alone and hope to be inspired the next day, or the next.”

Fortunately, performing is much more enjoyable for Knutson, and heard live, her lyrical playing contains an enticing meditative quality while still packing a visceral punch. “When I’m performing I hope to convey the meaning and emotions of the tunes. My favorite performers are those that make me feel something in my body and keep it interesting in my mind, so I hope to give that experience as well,” Knutson explains. “As a composer of instrumental tunes, I try to create memorable melodies, harmonies, and arrangements that are enjoyable and interesting to both seasoned musicians and non-musicians, something that will bring us all together.”

In addition to her trio’s performance on Thursday, June 22 at Vieux Carre at 7:30 p.m., Mary Louise will also be appearing with the JazzMN Orchestra on Friday, June 23 at the Securian Mears Park Stage at 4:00 pm. See her calendar and more at