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  • Glenn Siegel

The Mary LaRose Ensemble Does Dolphy

Brooklyn Dodger manager Leo Durocher famously hypothesized that “Nice guys finish last.” Well, at least in the jazz world I inhabit, the opposite is true. Vocalist Mary LaRose and clarinetist Jeff Lederer are two of the nicest, most creative people I know. They top my list of life-affirming artists.

The two – partners on and off the bandstand – led a quintet on Saturday, October 9thin support of LaRose’s new release, Out Here-The Music of Eric Dolphy, at the Institute for the Musical Arts in Goshen. They were joined by vibraphonist Patricia Brennan, bassist Michael Formanek and drummer Matt Wilson in the second concert of Pioneer Valley Jazz Shares’ 10th season.

LaRose, who was born and raised and still lives in Brooklyn, wrote lyrics to tunes associated with the great reedman Eric Dolphy. Her lyrics were simple and sly. In 245, named for Dolphy’s Brooklyn residence, she sings: “And if the walls could talk at 245/what a story they would tell/so much music found its way here/conversations improvised there/music flowing free/Carlton was the place to be/and if I could have been that fly on the wall spying at 245/oh how much pleasure that would bring me/have that music going through me/it was so alive what was at 245.” And later in the song, she brings us back to today’s reality: “Now streets are paved with gold here and money talks/now Fort Greene is gentrified/and million-dollar condos rule there/priceless music filled the air here/but money can’t compete with what did happen on that street/on that street/245 Carlton Ave.”

LaRose was an unassuming muse, and happily shared the spotlight with her ensemble. This was not an evening of vocals and accompaniment; her voice occupied equal status with the rest of her band, and she shared with them a rhythmic suppleness and ease of delivery that won over the 70 listeners in IMA’s homey barn. Over the course of the concert, LaRose smartly incorporated short duo passages with each of her fellow musicians, allowing her to showcase her instrument. To my ears, Sheila Jordan serves as a reference point. Both are storytellers at heart and fearless improvisers with spot on intonation. As Jordan followed her lodestar, Charlie Parker, LaRose is hitched to Eric Dolphy.

Lederer, who eschewed his tenor sax for the clarinet and bass clarinet, wrote the arrangements for compositions recorded by Dolphy on landmark records of the early 1960s. (Dolphy’s passing at age 36 in 1964, remains a major jazz tragedy.) None of these tunes have entered the standard repertoire, but for those of us who grew up listening to Far Cry and Out to Lunch! and absorbing Dolphy’s massive contribution to the music of Mal Waldron, Charles Mingus, Booker Little, Oliver Nelson and John Coltrane, the melodies were recognized instantly.

The rhythm section was superb. It is always welcome to hear friends and established masters like Matt Wilson and Michael Formanek, but hearing a consequential newcomer like Patricia Brennancertainly provides a special jolt. Brennan grew up in Mexico playing Latin percussion and European classical music, and has since broadened her horizons considerably, playing with Matt Mitchell, Meredith Monk, John Hollenbeck and Mary Halvorson, with whom she just recorded. In fact, Brennan’s array of delays and bent notes, made possible with pedals and other gizmos, reminded me of the effects Halvorson achieves on guitar. She used four-mallets to rip off complex syncopated lines and string bows to conjure worlds of billowy electronic sounds.

Lederer reminded us that Dolphy’s parents were from Panama, then launched into “Music Matador,” featuring a deep Latin groove that supported a joyous melody. LaRose turned “GW,” which Dolphy wrote in tribute to Gerald Wilson, into a withering indictment of Chris Christie’s shameful political stunt to create traffic on the George Washington Bridge to hurt a Democrat.

The Jazz Shares concert, and one the previous evening at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, not only served as a CD release event, but a book launch, too. Last year, Priscilla Page and I commissioned Mary to contribute to an online project honoring Dr. Yusef Lateef on the centenary of his birth. The five portraits she produced of Brother Yusef spurred a pandemic-fueled flurry of work, depicting other saxophone masters of the 1960s. The result is “Out There,” a beautiful series of portraits using pastels on black paper.

On both sides of the bandstand there was genuine appreciation that the feedback loop, long interrupted by the pandemic, had been reestablished. I thought about the human connection that lies at the heart of this music, and remembered our first encounter with Jeff and Mary, a 2012 Magic Triangle Series concert featuring Shakers ‘n Bakers. That project, a deep dive into the praise songs of Mother Ann Lee and the Shakers, took place at the Unitarian Meeting House in Northampton. The concert included audience members ascending to the pulpit to read or sing phrases taken from Shaker “gift” songs while the band (Miles Griffith, Jamie Saft, Chris Lightcap, Allison Miller and Jeff and Mary) riffed behind them. That cherished memory cemented my admiration for the people-powered music making of Mary LaRose and Jeff Lederer. Two first-place nice guys.

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