Inventive, agile, the beauty in the notes: Mary Louise Knutson

There’s a special vibe that comes from a pianist who travels the keyboard like an old soul with a refreshing approach. Mary Louise Knutson is at one with the piano and evokes humanity-affirming moods and atmospheres.

You may know “Bluesette” as a jaunty and dense romp, but it’s thoughtful and sweet in Knutson’s hands, adding a new dimension to the classic. “Sea of Qi” is lyrical and a stunning example of sharing space in an ensemble. The delicious slurs and dynamic play in “That’s All” are a great counterpoint to the strong melody of “In the Bubble.” Her interpretation of the standards makes them fun and recognizable with a little something new, and her original music is a strong and smart addition to contemporary jazz.

What was the moment you knew you would be a musician?

It had to be early in life. I never thought I’d be anything else. 

What was the most important takeaway from your formal music education?

It was that everything I learned in my classical studies contributed to my success as a jazz musician today. Often people think that classical studies will impede your ability to play jazz or that jazz studies will impede your ability to play classical. For me, everything I study just broadens my overall musicality. 

What was the biggest surprise to you as a musician when you started to perform?

That performance anxiety can really compromise a performance and take the fun out of performing. I’ve struggled with it for most of my career, so it’s been a study of mine to find out why it happens and how to overcome it. I’m happy to say I’ve made some great strides in that area!  

In what ways have you developed as a musician from when you started to today?

I’ve been playing for such a long time, so I’ve developed in so many ways.

I started as a classical musician, getting my degree in Piano Performance from the Lawrence University Conservatory of Music and then decided I wanted to play jazz after college. So I switched gears and started learning how to play in the jazz style and how to improvise by listening to records, transcribing solos, and reading theory books.

I loved the sound of jazz but had no innate ability to play it. So, 18 years of classical and 34 years of studying jazz have developed my technique, touch, musicality, dynamics, understanding of time, harmony, comping, improvising, solo playing, combo playing, accompanying, composing, arranging, music biz skills, and more!

What do you like about playing in a trio, and how do you approach the music differently when you are part of a larger (big) band?

I love the role I play in a trio – I’m the lead instrument. I can shape the piece however I want – not only in my improvised solo, but in the phrasing and styling of the melody. In addition, there’s room for spontaneous interaction with the bassist and drummer, which is really satisfying. It’s like a conversation. There’s more musical freedom for me in a trio setting than in a big band.

In a big band, my role is more supportive – I function more as an accompanist. The melody is usually played by the horns and much of the music is notated, so the only time for spontaneous interaction is during the improvised solos.

I like the big band setting for the powerful and rich sound, but the trio setting allows me to show more of who I am as a creative musician.  

What goes into the creative process when you compose?

I compose at the piano and write everything out by hand. I usually start by exploring, playing textures and shapes on the piano that sound a lot like avant-garde/free jazz. This is my way of avoiding familiar melodies, voicings, and progressions. Eventually, some idea will stand out as a seed that wants to grow. It could take me a day or so, or weeks, to find that seed, and then weeks or months to write the whole tune. On rare occasions, a tune will just write itself in a day or two and that feels like a real gift.

I’m usually writing with the piano in mind, but as the tune develops, I start hearing how it would sound with my trio and sketch out the bass and drum parts on paper. When I have it all figured out, I’ll notate the bass and drums on the computer using a notation software program. I’ll also notate the piano part for myself so I have a clean score of the tune. A few of my trio tunes also work as solo piano pieces. In those cases, I arrange and notate the piano part so that it sounds full without bass and drums and offer it as solo piano sheet music for my piano-playing fans.

What’s it like working on your upcoming CD? 

It’s still pretty early in the process, but one of the highlights so far was recording a ballad and finding out that it sounded just like I wanted it to from start to finish. No editing needed! In today’s recording world, most music is edited, so this was a big success for me.

If you had to choose, which do you like best: a great melody, great harmony, stellar lyrics, or a catchy rhythm? 

I’m a melody girl. Great melodies tell a story and have the potential to connect with people on their own. Look at songs like “You Are My Sunshine” and “Over the Rainbow” – we all know those melodies without the harmony, lyrics, or rhythm. And we also know those melodies even when someone reharmonizes them or puts a different groove on them.    

Some of your top favorite collaborations that you’ve been involved in? 

Doc Severinsen. I was his touring pianist for eight years. He was a blast to work with and, with his tireless work ethic and mission of being happy, he inspired me to shoot for the best in myself. I’ll never forget those years playing together.    

Why do you love being a musician?

At a young age, I liked playing music because it was a treat for my ears and I enjoyed the process of mastering something. Later, perhaps when I was in high school, I loved playing music because it was fun to play with other musicians. I still feel all those things now. But after so many years of being a musician, I’ve learned from my fans that my music raises their spirits – takes them out of their busy minds and out of their physical or emotional pain for a time – and is, in some way, healing to them. So, the ability to make a positive impact on the world is why I love being a musician today.  

Upcoming performances/venues/festivals etc.?

I recently performed in Minneapolis (where I’m based) with the JazzMN Orchestra, Minnesota’s premier big band and vocalist Kurt Elling. Playing with Elling was a bucket list item, so I’m glad to have had that opportunity! As I get closer to finishing my recording project, I’ll be booking more national dates for my trio. In the mean time, if you ever get to Minneapolis, please come by one of my shows and say hello!

For more information, visit

Photos courtesy and with permission of the artist.

© 2022 Debbie Burke  

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