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 Tuesday, 21 October 2014
Jazz “In the Bubble” – Mary Louise Knutson’s New Recording PDF Print
Written by Andrea Canter, Contributing Editor   
Friday, 07 October 2011

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In the Bubble

Jazz Times called her first recording “state-of-the-art piano trio finery," and two of the CD’s original compositions, “How Will I Know” and Meridian” earned awards from Billboard. And following its 2001 release, Call Me When You Get There hit the jazz charts’ Top 50 in both the U.S. and Canada for 8 consecutive weeks. A modern mainstream artist who celebrates melody without being confined by it, pianist Mary Louise Knutson took her time in planning her second album, In the Bubble, released this month on Meridian records. “The format of half originals and half standards worked so well for me the first time that I thought I’d stick with it,” she said recently. And indeed, it seems to be a strategy that works at least as well ten years later.

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Gordy Johnson, Mary Louise Knutson, and Greg Schutte©Andrea Canter

One of the busiest pianists in the Twin Cities, Mary Louise Knutson is most often heard as a collaborator with area vocalists (Connie Evingson, Debbie Duncan) or anchoring the rhythm section for the acclaimed JazzMN Orchestra. Hearing In the Bubble reminds us that the Lawrence Conservatory graduate and 2005 finalist in the Mary Lou Williams Women in Jazz Piano Competition is above all an imaginative composer and superb arranger and interpreter, particularly effective in a trio context. In the Bubble not only refers to one of the original compositions but to the feeling of being “in this sweet spot where only good could come to us,” a feeling that Knutson recalls from a trip to Costa Rica as well as from the collaboration with her band in the recording studio. And it is not hard to imagine the positive energy that flowed among Knutson, bassist Gordon Johnson and drummers Phil Hey (5 tracks), Greg Schutte (4 tracks) and Craig Hara (1 track).

Even while “in the bubble,” as producer Knutson faced a few challenges. “Near the end, I got so immersed in the mixing and mastering process that I had a hard time letting go of the project.  I found myself in an endless cycle of tweaking.  Thankfully, I got to the point where I just couldn’t bear to work on it or think about it any longer. I had to let it go.” But all the tweaking (and sound mastering from Steve Weise and team at Creation Audio) paid off, yielding a masterful combination of original works and new arrangements. The covers are familiar but wide ranging and arrangements that inject new life into such tunes as “It Could Happen to You,” “Bluesette,” and “That’s All,” while Knutson’s compositions are marked by exquisite melodies, emotive harmonies, shifting rhythms and an elegant touch that recalls McPartland, Arriale, and Jarrett.  

It all flows so easily that it is hard to imagine the sweat and frustration that challenged Mary Louise as she wrote the music for this project. “During the months I spent composing and arranging, there were times where my creative well seemed bone dry,” she admits. “I couldn’t come up with any satisfying ideas for tunes or even ideas that would develop or complete tunes. That was very frustrating and frankly, a bit depressing.  I just had to show up everyday and try to compose something and trust that eventually the inspiration would be there...and luckily it was.” 

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Mary Louise Knutson, in studio ©Andrea Canter
Inspiration indeed informs the five new works on In the Bubble. “I just allowed the originals to come and did not try to force them in any direction,” says Mary Louise. “Occasionally, I’d hear the sound of my players in my mind as I was composing, but mainly I was just trying to hear where the music wanted to go.”  The elegant melodic lines of “Sea of Qi” (with Hara on drums), where “qi” can be loosely translated from Chinese as “life energy,” flow like sea foam, taking on various shapes yet remaining light, airy, and fleeting. Hara’s cymbals spray acoustic glitter, like waves hitting the beach, sending their white mist into the air. Johnson’s basslines and solo add a mysterious undertow, a suggestion of unknown destinations.  

“Can You Hear Me Now?” has a bouncy, catchy theme, Phil Hey displaying his capacity for diverse understatement. “Talk to Me” finds Knutson and Johnson locked into a tight musical dialogue like a long-standing couple who finish each other’s statements and thoughts. Johnson, a master of melody himself, is a perfect foil for Knutson, with Schutte now in the role of the understated partner. Perhaps no other track here better demonstrates Knutson’s glorious, delicate-but-firm touch. The title track, closing the album, is filled with the tropical sunshine of that trip to Costa Rica—a Minnesota samba reinforced by the south-of-the-border pulse set by Johnson and Schutte, with clean-as-a-whistle articulation and savvy sway from Mary Louise. 

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Gordy Johnson, i studio©Andrea Canter
Knutson included “You Are My Sunshine” in tandem with her own “Luminous,” explaining that “a relative of mine mentioned to me a while back that ‘You Are My Sunshine’ was her favorite tune. I was surprised by this since it’s such a simple folk tune.  But it got me thinking that maybe, with a little reharmonization and a gospel groove, it could be a little more interesting – at least to me.” The result is one of the most interesting tracks of the set, the arrangement creating the Jarrett-ish feel of a small town congregation at a joyous gathering. Johnson’s solo is simultaneously prayerful and playful, and the music rolls along like a country hymn --  a Gospel groove, indeed. 

Other covers shine light on Knutson’s arranging skills. “It Could Happen to You” opens the album with an undercurrent of urgency that soon shifts into a more relaxed swing over Phil Hey’s hollow pops and Gordy Johnson’s lilting walk. A blend of bop, stride and swing, you can hear a lot of jazz history just in the piano lines. After some melodic and tasteful soloing from all, they reprise the opening tempo, pressing to the finish line where Phil pounds out a final flourish. Toots Thielemans’s “Bluesette” was a tune Mary Louise had played often and sought to rearrange. “I just love the melody …I specifically heard my long-time bassist, Gordy Johnson [on] the duet part on ‘Bluesette.’  I knew he would play it beautifully.  And he did.” And so did Mary Louise, whose sweeping solo piano introduces the song as if raising the curtain on an epic play. The trio then launches a lilting swing, the rhythm reconsidered such that the meter is no longer a straight waltz but a staggered dance, a pas de trios.  The piano/bass duet is the centerpoint of the track, injecting sunshine into the rest, Hey offering just enough percussive propulsion. No blue moments here. 

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Mary Louise Knutson©Andrea Canter
One of Gerry Mulligan’s favorites, “Bernie’s Tune” “was an easy choice. I’ve been playing it for many years and it just swings so easily,” says Mary Louise. The swinging bebop track is augmented by Hey’s playful accents throughout. Of “That’s All,” Knutson notes that “It’s a sweet tune and I love how the repeated melodic intervals sound completely fresh with each change of harmony.  I was intrigued and decided to look up the lyrics...I loved the humble message and was completely hooked.” That humble message comes through quite clearly here without any lyric, just the gently swinging voices of piano and bass, and the ever-present tingle of brush strokes. “You Don’t Know What Love Is” is introduced via intriguing basslines, which continue beneath the piano’s syncopated melody. It’s one of the most impressive improvisation exchanges on the album, with changes in tempo, mood, and some snatches of Latin rhythm. 

Will the release of In the Bubble prompt more trio appearances for Mary Louise?  “I sure hope so!,” says the pianist who is also managing international radio distribution of the recording.  “I took a hiatus from playing my own trio gigs for a while so I could spend time more on the project.  Now that the CD is done, I’ll turn my focus back to playing live.  Anyone want to host a concert?”  Until those gigs fill out her calendar, piano jazz fans can enjoy the next best thing, listening to In the Bubble on the air and in the living room. If Call Me When You Get There was “piano trio finery,” then the new recording is easily “piano trio majesty.” 

CD available from CD Baby or visit www.marylouiseknutson.com  
 



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