When you get discovered by an absolute icon of big band like Doc Severinsen…you know you’re on a track that’s right and tight.
Jazz pianist Mary Louise Knutson has fingers that communicate by dancing on the keys on, say, “Bernie’s Tune” and the pointed “Can You Hear Me Now?” or placing down a somber thought in “Sea of Qi.” Her tone is elastic and richly expressive, and her phrasing is scalpel-specific. There’s an aural beauty that seems effortless; emotions just spilling from her heart and head out through the fingertips.
When did you learn piano?
I studied classical piano for 18 years, from ages 4-22. The last four of those years were at the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music in Appleton, WI, where I earned my Bachelors of Music in Piano Performance.
In college, I also took some extracurricular jazz courses. I played in several jazz ensembles, dabbled in jazz composition and studied jazz piano privately for a couple of summers. I learned about harmony and theory, but still didn’t really understand how to improvise and was very uncomfortable trying.
Yet, my love for jazz was growing daily and I was eager to learn the language.
By the time I graduated, I knew I wanted to become a jazz pianist. I immediately moved to Minneapolis (the closest metropolis to my hometown of Wausau, WI) and began my self-study in jazz piano. Even as a professional jazz pianist, my studies continue to this day, 29 years later!
Why do you think the instrument is so appropriate for jazz?
Jazz is an improvisational music, so probably any instrument would be appropriate as long as the musician playing it could improvise. But, one of the best assets of the piano is its versatility. It can be used harmonically, rhythmically and melodically, and offers the widest range of pitch of any instrument. This versatility provides endless possibilities for improvisation!
Is “In the Bubble” your most recent CD? Talk about how you selected the tracks.
Yes. The formula of half originals/half standards on my first CD, “Call Me When You Get There,” seemed to work well for me. People were drawn in by the familiar standards on the song list, but often commented after hearing the music that my originals were their favorites.
So I used that recipe for “In the Bubble” as well. I composed four new tunes, which I allowed to materialize organically. I didn’t have an agenda or set any style requirements. Then, the standards were chosen because I enjoyed them; each lent a stylistic element that contributed to the overall variety and balance of the album.
For instance, I gave “It Could Happen to You” an up-tempo intro and ending for a bit of excitement, then transitioned to a medium tempo mid-section to feature hard-swinging solos. “Bluesette” offered a lilting 3/4 meter. “Bernie’s Tune” offered a minor mode and a bit of bebop. “You Are My Sunshine” called for a gospel style and hipper harmonies. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” provided fertile soil for a funky arrangement, and “That’s All” fulfilled my love for ballads.
In the end, I think the pieces complement each other and make for a cohesive and accessible program.
“Bluesette” is on your new CD and happens to be one of my favorites. Talk about why you like it.
“Bluesette” was written by one of my favorite musicians, the late Toots Thielemans, a Belgian-American who was probably the world’s best jazz harmonica player. Toots always played with a lot of heart and seemed like such a sweet guy when I saw him live in concert. “Bluesette” reflects his sweetness in the lovely consonant 6ths of the melody and the lilting waltz style. It’s a tune that is instantly likable, just like Toots!
Do you have a new CD in the works?
Yes, but so far only in my mind! I definitely intend to record again, but I’ve been trying to figure out which direction to go with a new project. I’m sure if I just start composing the direction will reveal itself to me!
Your original composition “How Will I Know,” how did the melody come to you? What is the meaning to you?
I started composing “How Will I Know” one day when I was faced with making a difficult life decision. When two seemingly valid but completely different choices present themselves, how does one decide which path to take? Choosing one over the other could result in a vastly different life experience.
I was hoping for a sign, hoping to make the right choice, when I sat down at the piano…maybe God, spirit, whatever, would give me the answer through music. I’m not sure I got my answer that day, but I got a nice tune!
How did you get to play in Doc Severinsen’s band and what was that experience like?
My first gig with Doc was in 2010 when the Minnesota Orchestra hired me to play for his holiday show at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis. There were hundreds of musicians on the stage – a 100-piece orchestra, a 100-piece choir, a 30-piece bell choir, a 15-piece big band, and a rhythm section (including me), which was at the back of the stage. Doc’s drummer from the Tonight Show Band, Ed Shaughnessy, was a few feet away from me and Doc’s bassist from New York, Kevin Thomas, was right next to me. Doc was clear across the room at the podium conducting and playing. I wondered if Doc could even hear me back there.
After the shows that weekend, the stage manager told me that Doc wanted to see me in his office. I thought, “Oh no, Doc probably wants to give me a few pointers on how I can improve.” When I got there, he said, “You sound great! Do you want to go on tour with me?” I was ecstatic inside, but didn’t want to show it. Of course I wanted to go on tour with him…I had only seen him every night on TV when I was a kid! Plus, it had been a dream of mine to tour with a nationally known and respected artist and here it was coming true.
The next year, Doc came to Minneapolis again to play a summer big band show and another winter holiday show, which I was hired for, but he hadn’t called me for any touring that year. I was beginning to think his offer was just too good to be true. But after the holiday show, Doc apologized that no tour had taken place and asked me if I’d help him put together a big band for touring. I thought, “What makes him think I’m capable of helping him with THAT?” But I agreed, hoping my beau, trombonist Michael Nelson, would help me with the assignment. And he did. We got four trumpeters and three trombonists from Minneapolis, and Doc got four saxophonists from Illinois plus two-time Grammy Award winner tenor saxophonist Ernie Watts (an original member of the Tonight Show Band), and a Dallas drummer and New York bassist.
National touring began in the spring of 2012 with multiple tours every spring and fall, and then, for these past few years, we’ve been doing mostly symphony shows which involve just his rhythm section, a lead trumpeter, and a couple of vocalists for concerts with major orchestras around the country. The big band is a real powerhouse and the soloists are burning.
Doc likes the band to play with a lot of power and volume just like the big bands did before microphones were used. Plus he jokes that he can’t hear very well. In the symphony shows, the piano is in the front and center of the orchestra. It’s pure heaven being surrounded by such beautiful sounds. At 90, Doc is still an incredible trumpeter (due to committed practice) and still wears those flashy clothes. He’s a great boss, very down to earth, and extremely funny. We all have so much respect and appreciation for who he is and what he has accomplished in his life as a musician and TV personality. He’s an inspiration!
Talk about the personnel in your trio and how you are able to read each other and create a beautiful sound.
Thanks for the compliment! My most regular trio members are bassist Gordon Johnson and drummer Phil Hey. When they’re not available I have a couple of other musicians I enjoy working with as well. But mainly, I think the sound we get is due to everyone’s incredible musicianship, the detail I provide in my arrangements and compositions, and our longevity together.
We’ve been making music for at least 25 years now, which I think gives us a unified sound. We know each other’s tendencies so well we can pretty much finish each other’s sentences!
What is the jazz scene like in Minneapolis? What do you like best about it?
We have a few nice clubs that feature jazz regularly here in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul) – The Dakota, Vieux Carré, the Black Dog, and The Dunsmore Room at Crooners. And Jazz Central, a glorified rehearsal space, is a popular venue for musicians to present their works in progress in a casual atmosphere.
What I like best about our area is that we have more world-class musicians than we know what to do with. Whether I’m leading a group or playing with others, I’m always surrounded by amazing musicians who continue to grow and create new works. Maybe it’s a byproduct of the cold winters!
I’m often asked if I have sheet music for my original tunes, so I recently created solo piano sheet music for the title tune of my latest CD “In the Bubble.” It’s been very popular, so I plan to make solo piano sheet music for all my originals now.
As for performing, when I’m not on tour with Doc Severinsen, I perform regularly with my group, the Mary Louise Knutson Trio, (or solo) at concert halls, clubs, and festivals both here and abroad. I also perform with Twin Cities vocalists Connie Evingson, Debbie Duncan and Patty Peterson; with a variety of instrumental groups including the aforementioned JazzMN Orchestra and the Minnesota Orchestra; and am a first-call musician to back up national artists when they come to town.
I enjoy teaching private jazz piano lessons and presenting master classes on various topics including improvisation, composition and the history of jazz piano. My favorite and most popular class, “Making Sense of Jazz,” is designed to help non-musicians and/or budding jazz enthusiasts gain an understanding and appreciation for America’s original art form.
How would you describe your individual sound?
My sound is warm and inviting, accessible yet interesting, distinctive, playful and expressive.
What attracts you most about a song that makes you want to do a cover?
I’m not a lyric person, so when I hear a song with lyrics I hear everything BUT the lyrics – the melody, harmony, rhythm, texture, tone, quality of the instruments, etc. Mostly I’ll choose a song for its strong melody or harmonic progression, then I’ll play with it and create my own arrangement of it.
How do you plan to develop your career in 2018?
Good question! Well, I plan to continue building my skills as an improviser, compose and record new music, and perform more nationally with my trio and/or with other touring artists.
Thanks again for your interest and for including me in your blog and book!
For more information, visit www.marylouiseknutson.com.
Photos courtesy of and with permission of Mary Louise Knutson. Top photo (c) Dietrich Gesk, second photo (c) Andrea Canter.
(c) Debbie Burke 2017