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 Wednesday, 22 October 2014
“Black Ice” in Summer--Steve Hirsh & Company at Bar Lurcat, July 27th PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Sunday, 23 July 2006

“My goal for this recording was just to make some good,
swinging music.” –Steve Hirsh


Photo by Andrea Canter
Photo by Andrea Canter

Take two guys who met years ago as Legal Aid attorneys, throw in a poet and a musicologist, and the result is a swinging jazz quartet known as “Black Ice.” Led by former Bemidji resident and drummer Steve Hirsh, Black Ice brings together the talents of St. Paul pianist Larry McDonough, Twin Citian via Mankato saxophonist Richard Terrill, and Bemidji bassist Dr. Pat Riley. Last January, Black Ice celebrated the release of its debut eponymous recording at the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis. On July 27thth, Steve Hirsh and the band return to Bar Lurcat.


Black Ice: The Musicians

Despite their collective talents, none of these musicians found the recording studio through a direct route. In fact the detours have been significant, especially for Hirsh and Terrill.

Photo by Andrea Canter
Photo by Andrea Canter


Steve Hirsh started playing drums at age 12, but also studied guitar and saxophone in junior high until his orthodontist suggested a reed instrument would further worsen an overbite. Hirsh went on to play drums in college (“nothing memorable”) but gave up his dream of becoming a professional musician and ultimately sold the drums in 1980 “to pay rent.” It was another 20 years before Hirsh returned to his first love. In the interim, he became an attorney, working for Legal Aid and later for the Center for Reducing Rural Violence where he was the Executive Director until moving to the Twin Cities a few months ago. Once Hirsh returned to music, he made the most of it, working hard to develop a jazz audience in his northern Minnesota community. He played in two big bands, the Bemidji State Big Band and a Grand Rapids group, Swing Delivery, in addition to his own trio and quartet. In 2005, Hirsh received an Individual Artist Grant from the Region 2 Arts Board, which supported the new recording with Black Ice.
To read an interview with Steve Hirsh click here.


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Another Midwest native,in his college days Richard Terrill performed with the award-winning University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire Jazz Ensemble. Additonally, as a student saxman he played with later-to-be-Pat Metheny keyboardist Lyle Mays in the Lyle Mays Quartet. He has also worked with Eau Claire native son, pianist Geoff Keezer. But like Steve Hirsh, Terrill gave up music for other pursuits, particularly writing and poetry. His autobiography, Fake Book, describes his early career in jazz and his return to music. While teaching creative writing at Minnesota State University Mankato, Terrill has kept up his jazz chops playing with pianist Larry McDonough, guitarist Jim McGuire, and with Chaz Draper's Uptown Jazz Quartet. In 2003, Terrill published a book of poems, Coming Late to Rachmaninoff, winner of the 2004 Minnesota Book Award for Poetry. Currently he is working on a children’s biography of Duke Ellington. Terrill appears on Larry McDonough’s recent release, Simple Gifts.


Pianist Larry McDonough first studied piano in fourth grade and was already gigging around town as a high school student in Bloomington, MN. Earning a degree in music education at the University of Minnesota, he had the opportunity to play both piano and trumpet in student ensembles with legends Clark Terry and Thad Jones, and in concerts for President Nixon and the President of Mexico. Through the late 1970s and early 1980s, McDonough worked as a part-time high school band instructor while also playing in a number of Twin Cities’ bands, ranging from jazz to pop and polka. Concerned that his music career was taking him too far from the “real world,” he enrolled at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul in 1980, putting his music career on the back burner for a few years. Still working fulltime as a tenants’ attorney, Larry found himself pulled back into music in the 1990s, recording with Bozo Allegro and gradually finding more and more work with other area ensembles and vocalists. McDonough is known as composer as well as performer, and particularly for his arrangements and compositions featuring odd meters. He’s released several recordings, most recently Simple Gifts with his working quartet of Chaz Draper, Craig Mataresse, and Richard Terrill.

Photo by Andrea Canter
Photo by Andrea Canter


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Bassist Pat Riley has followed a more direct path in music, albeit primarily classical. He studied at the Peabody Conservatory of Music and earned graduate degrees at the American University (in cello and pedagogy) and a doctorate in musicology at the University of Iowa. Riley has worked with a number of chamber ensembles, was Director of Graduate Studies at the American Conservatory of Music in Chicago, and is currently Professor of Music and head of the strings program at Bemidji State University. Pat’s resume includes jazz as well as classical music, playing in the Chicago area and now in Bemidji with the Bemidji Big Band, the Bemidji Jazz Quartet, and the Steve Hirsh Trio.


Black Ice: The Music

The inspiration for Black Ice was quite basic—Hirsh hoped to cut a demo to promote his music and generate more work. With a small grant from the Region 2 Arts Council (with funding from the McKnight Foundation), his initial efforts involved Bemidji-area musicians. Not finding the sound he desired, Hirsh looked first to Larry McDonough. The two had met years ago when both were working for Legal Aid, and recently had played a few gigs together. He had previously collaborated with Richard Terrill through one performance and several rehearsals, and was already working with Pat Riley in local ensembles. Following a winter gig that involved some harrowing country driving, Hirsh came up with the name “Black Ice”—“an invisible, slick and dangerous” glaze that Minnesota drivers know all too well.

With his quartet in place, Hirsh next had to figure out how to get everyone to the Gary Burger Studios in northern Minnesota. “We finally worked out a plan for a weekend that included a wedding gig, a rehearsal, some kayaking and grilling, and then the recording.”

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Black Ice cover

Musicians often agonize over the content and spirit of a recording—the over-arching theme or common elements that will turn a collection of tunes into a holistic “concept. Hirsh wasn’t seeking a new sound –just a good sound. “There's nothing revolutionary here, we're not breaking any new ground. What I'm most happy about with the recording is that it sounds (to me) relaxed and happy and it swings." And from such humble aspirations comes exactly what Hirsh envisioned—“good swinging music.” The playlist features a listener-friendly balance of standards (“Days of Wine and Roses,” “My One and Only Love,” “Summertime”), jazz classics (“All Blues” and “Dolphin Dance”), a Bonnie Raitt cover (“Nick of Time”), an original composition (“Namekagon”) and trademark arrangement (“Alice in Wonderland”) from Larry McDonough, and an original from saxophonist Eric Alexander (“Mode for Mabes”) with whom Hirsh studied at jazz camp.


It all swings from the git-go, from Terrill’s opening buzzy vibrato on “Days of Wine and Roses” to the ensembles’ more or less straight take on the final “Dolphin Dance.” Everything in-between, from Mancini to Hancock, is simply relaxed mainstream fun, the musicians often stretching out for 7-8 minutes, weaving their stories with playful embellishments, everyone (though least of all the leader) taking a turn in the spotlight as point man and challenger.


In many respects the recording is a showcase for Richard Terrill, as the sax (tenor or soprano) is often the focal point. His effort on the opening “Days of Wine and Roses” fortells the shape of tracks to come, staying close to the plot until the out chorus when he soars with a spiraling finale . On the quartet’s stand-out read of “My One and Only Love, ” Terrill starts off at the top of the tenor, a sultry lope giving way later to a bit more swing and swagger. He shifts the soprano to full throttle on “Summertime”; on “All Blues” his short phrase combinations morph into tight spirals that climb and descend.


Larry McDonough is always a dramatic force on the keyboard, whether openly leading with his assertive chording and melodic intensity or more subtly spinning the temporal fabric with his idiosyncratic meters. He asserts himself early on, his solo on “Days of Wine and Roses” infused with his trademark rhythmic twists and double-handed chords while maintaining a lyrical undercurrent. Often McDonough plays the devils’ advocate, at times countering the melody with a Monkish quirkiness as with a flurry of cascades on “Mode for Mabes,” at other times serving a lyrical counterpoint as on “My One and Only Love." McDonough initiates “Summertime” with a warm, breathy vocal; on keys, his sweet Evanescent mode gracefully shines on “All Blues” and particularly on his arrangement of “Alice in Wonderland.”


Throughout the recording, Pat Riley's bass role shifts back and forth between pulse master (particularly note “Days of Wine and Roses,” “Mode for Mabes,” and “All Blues”) and contrapuntal magician (“Nick of Time,” “My One and Only Love,” and “Namekagon”). He turns a standout solo on “Alice in Wonderland,” and his energy propels the ensemble throughout.


Steve Hirsh is ever the manager, rarely taking an assertive role out front but always building a swinging foundation of crisp and steady percussion in support of his bandmates. He works the trapset inside-out, his cymbal scratching and snare popping combinations embellishing “Mode for Mabes,” his brushes painting fluttering phrases on “My One and Only Love,” his shimmering cymbals adding drama to “Namekagon.”


But most critically this recording is a group effort and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. “Alice in Wonderland” exemplifies the joyous interaction among four friends. The first voice belongs to Riley, introducing a sweetly lyrical piano played over Hirsh’s brushwork. Tenor and piano state the melody in unison at the end of the first chorus before the quartet launches its series of experiments. Riley nicely deconstructs the theme while maintaining the integrity of the arrangement. The track picks up some steam at about two-thirds in as McDonough swings into a more richly textured vamp with forceful chord sequences and bare whiffs of melody, leaving it to Riley to bring it back to the starting line.


I have to admit that I had little awareness of the outstate jazz scene in Minnesota before encountering Black Ice. I’d heard Richard Terrill with the Larry McDonough Quartet at gigs in the Cities, and had never encountered Steve Hirsh or Pat Riley before the CD Release Party at the Dakota. For those who are similarly limited by a metro-centric view of “local” music, the first step to recovery is Black Ice. Without straying from the urban epicenter of jazz, you can take this step at Bar Luract on July 27th, when Steve Hirsh and friends take the stage to make some “good swinging music.”


Black Ice performs at 7:30 pm on Thursday, July 27th at Bar Lurcat, 1624 Harmon Place off Loring Park near downtown Minneapolis; www.cafelurcat.com. Black Ice (the CD) is available from Steve Hirsh for $12 plus $2.50 postage: at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it




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