Larry McDonough appreciates a good ambush. He knows that you and everyone else regard the tear-jerking pathos that opens "Amazing Grace" simply as a foil for the upcoming redemption, the saving of "a wretch like me." But who was that wretch?
"The author of 'Amazing Grace' was a slave trader in England who found religion later in life," says McDonough, a full-time attorney for Legal Aid who also happens to be a cerebral and agile jazz pianist and arranger. "So I wanted to make it darker, so it starts out as a minor [key] dirge before it gets more pleasing. That's an early example of me asking myself what a piece says to me before I restructure it."
Subsequent examples abound on Simple Gifts, the first recording by the Larry McDonough Quartet. There is the George and Ira Gershwin chestnut, "They Can't Take That Away from Me," which, McDonough explains, contains lyrics "that aren't cheery. The intro is plain paranoid--'They are going to take you away from me.' Conventionally it is very show-tunish, but I took the harmonic structure of 'Summertime' and layered it underneath, and now it has a longing to it that you don't hear in the original." To further dampen the mood, McDonough provides a yearning vocal, one of three songs he sings on Simple Gifts.
Along with reharmonizing songs and plumbing their lyrical content, McDonough frequently rearranges tunes into odd time signatures. The Gershwin song is done as a waltz; "Amazing Grace," Steely Dan's "Aja," and "My Favorite Things" (the holiday tune jazz fans associate with John Coltrane) are all played in 5/4. And "Dame la mano," an Argentine children's song based on the same melody (and thus conflated with) the cowboy classic "Red River Valley," is done in 7/4 time.
Not surprisingly, it is the confounding, challenging aspect of odd times that most appeals to McDonough. "So much of Western music is symmetrical. There is an inherent tension in odd times that adds a level of rhythmic intensity that you just don't have in 4/4 time," he says. "Odd meters have an imbalance, so that when you do add symmetry to it, it makes the song weirder and more complex. How cool is that? It also requires a new library of soloing for the players. I got into it by doing 'Take the "A" Train' in 5/4. I have to admit, the tune had worn out on me, but doing it in five freshened the framework."
And yet, if anything, Simple Gifts errs on the side of accessibility. Part of that is content--just two of the nine songs are McDonough originals and most of the rest are eminently familiar. "The odd meters are easier to digest if you already know the piece," McDonough explains. That's the other part, the style and purpose. Rather than dazzle you with their various wrinkles, McDonough and his mates want to engage you in what they're doing.
McDonough's modesty facilitates this engagement. Although he's written songs in tribute to Paul Wellstone and he fights for the indigent in the courtroom, he downplays the valor and shrugs off references to him in other media as a "Renaissance man." "I really enjoy my day job, but it is still all about the money and that poor people don't have it. I help them out on the margins--maybe get them a higher government benefit or allow them to stay in their apartment--but that isn't pulling them out of poverty. So when I sit down at the piano, I think my music is reflective of those sad things. The flip side is that playing music brings me fresher to my work. Maybe some brain cells get fired from the different context."
And it doesn't stop there. McDonough runs enough to have qualified for the highly competitive Boston Marathon. Shortly after his youngest child (the third of three daughters) was born with cerebral palsy 12 years ago, he went part-time at Legal Aid to help with her therapy. "Rosie is disabled, but she is the most well-adjusted member of our family," he says, with the same glee he uses when marveling at how symmetry adds to complexity in odd meters. He recounts the time recently when she picked up an African drum and immediately fell in sync with a 7/4 rendition of Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island," and heartily endorses Fingersteps, a system of adaptive computer software and hardware that enables his daughter and other persons with disabilities to write melodies and perform music. "They have an emotive quality that is not bound up in convention," he says, adding that he co-wrote "Elie's Theme" with Elie Gorman by expounding on Gorman's musings on the Fingersteps system. It's hands-down the happiest song on Simple Gifts, in part because McDonough interpolates a little of the Christmas tune "Go Tell It on the Mountain" into the piece.
"Like every song on the record, it came out differently than I imagined," McDonough recounts. "I envisioned it as a ballad with brushes, and it became this gospel groove in the middle. When people are open and not defensive, that's what can happen." Everyday moments of amazing grace.