Mary Louise Knutson was always drawn to the piano, even as a young child.
At the upright Baldwin Acrosonic in her family's living room, "I would sit down and make up little things," she said
Her mother, who played the piano, recognized her innate ability, and Knutson began taking classical piano lessons at the age of 4.
Knutson, who was adopted, later learned that her birth family was chock-full of musicians. She kept up her lessons, and it eventually became a major part of her life.
The Minneapolis resident, who is also a composer and arranger, has now been playing professionally for over two decades. Jazz is her passion.
Next month, she will provide accompaniment for amateur talent contestants at the State Fair (Sept. 6); solo in the Orchestra Hall lobby in conjunction with the Minnesota Orchestra's first concerts of the season (Sept. 11-12), and a concert with JazzMN Orchestra at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatres (Sept. 14).
Later in the month, she'll tour around the country with trumpeter and former "Tonight Show" bandleader Doc Severinsen.
Knutson, who's played with numerous big-name artists, first discovered jazz during a summer music program at the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester in New York, when she was in high school.
A bunch of students were studying jazz and she'd hear them practicing. On the weekends, Knutson went to their concerts. Part of what appealed to her was "the idea that people were making up their own music, improvising," and the rhythms, she said.
It was a turning point for her and by the time she was a senior at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., where she studied classical piano performance, "I was so excited about jazz, I knew that was the direction I wanted to go," she said.
An eclectic style
Knutson has made a living by doing a variety of gigs, playing with the Mary Louise Knutson Trio and many other groups and vocalists, giving private lessons, teaching master classes or courses at Carleton College in Northfield, and writing music.
In 2007, Knutson's trio toured 20 cities across the country. That's something she'd like to build on, though it's a challenge to break into the national and international touring scene, she said.
She was also a finalist in the in the Kennedy Center's Mary Lou Williams "Women in Jazz" Pianist Competition and her music is featured in an art documentary titled "Wellington Lee: 60 Years of Artistic Photography."
"It all pieces together. … it's improvising a living," she said.
When Knutson began her career and moved to Minneapolis in 1988, she immersed herself in jazz as much as she could, often playing solo for private parties. She used to frequent jam sessions at the old Artists' Quarter at 26th and Nicollet in Minneapolis, trying to build up her skills.
That led to playing with different groups. In the early 1990s, Knutson started the Mary Louise Knutson Trio, which features her playing along with bass and drum players.
It was around that time that she got serious about composing and arranging music, which she'd only dabbled in before. "I wanted to feature my own voice," she said.
Her taste in jazz is eclectic, and that shines through in her compositions. Some tunes are inspired by classic mainstream style jazz, while others are influenced by the likes of jazz pianist Chick Corea, one of the founders of the jazz-fusion style, or ECM recording artist Keith Jarrett.
Her original music is accessible, yet she tries to keep it interesting for longtime jazz devotees.
Her most recent CD, "In the Bubble," which came out in 2011, "charted in JazzWeek's Top 10," her website states. The title track was inspired by a Costa Rica trip.
She and her friends seemingly had the place to themselves. "It was as if we were in this sweet spot where only good could come to us," the music liner notes say. "We kept saying, 'We're in the bubble!' "
By contrast, another song, "Sea of Qi," seemingly "floats through a range of emotions. Sometimes your emotions will buoy you, like water. Sometimes it'll devour you."
The composing/arranging seems to flow out of her. "Somewhere deep inside me, my collected experiences are bubbling, and then I want to go explore at the piano," she said, adding, "I'm trying to put intervals and melodies together to explain those inner experiences."
Knutson doesn't write lyrics, so everything has to be expressed harmonically, rhythmically and melodically.
When she's working hard on composing, some days seem fruitful and other times it feels as if nothing is happening. Knutson has learned that she "can't have expectations of when the music will surface. I just have to trust that it will in its own time," she said.
A professional through-and-through
Gordon Johnson, a jazz bassist who met Knutson years ago, when she was new to the Twin Cities, said via e-mail that he was "especially impressed with her harmonic approach at that time. She reminded me of pianist Bill Evans."
Since then, he's played and recorded with her trio. Her CD "In the Bubble" brought out some of his best playing, he said.
He enjoys her compositions, which are "deep and thoughtful, and her method of recording was determined and meticulous," he said.
Jeff Whitmill, who first hired Knutson to perform at the Jazz@StBarney's, a series at St Barnabas Lutheran Church in Minneapolis, nearly a decade ago, describes her as a whirlwind, "a profound performer, talented composer, thoroughly engaging teacher and passionate consumer of M&Ms."
A professional through-and-through, she "treats every gig as if it were a command performance for the toniest crowd you could imagine," Whitmill said.
Robert Behrens, who serves on the board for the JazzMN Orchestra, echoed that, saying, not only is Knutson passionate, but she reads music exceptionally well, making her very versatile. Knutson can go beyond what's on the page and "intuitively embellish the chart for an even more enjoyable listening experience through added harmonics and nuances," Behrens said, adding that she always plays with a smile.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.