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Larry McKenna: Keeping the Legacy Alive

Victor L. Schermer By

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AAJ: So you're not trying to deconstruct the song; rather you're trying to bring out that which is inherent in it as potential.

LM: Yes, when I've learned most of these tunes, I sit down at the piano and work them out. I'll try different chord substitutions and so on. At that point I am deconstructing, but then I'll put it all back together again, and, seeing the various possibilities, I'll still keep in mind how it came out of that original tune.

The CD It Might As Well Be Spring and the Movie Birdy

AAJ: Your CD It Might As Well Be Spring is just bursting with beautiful renditions of standards where your choruses are complex and subtle, yet the melody is always kept in the listener's heart and mind. Who are your sidemen on that one?

LM: Jason Shatill on bass, Pete Colangelo on piano, and Jim Schade on drums.

AAJ: Some excellent musicians, I'd say. Most of the tracks are familiar standards, like "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most," but there are a couple I'm not familiar with, like "So Many Stars."

LM: That was written by Sergio Mendes.

AAJ: The songs are obviously about a season of the year. But do they have particular meaning to you?

LM: Well, they're all songs I just happen to like. And there were a couple I never played before: "So Many Stars;" "Make Me Rainbows." But the producer gave me only a day or so notice to pick the charts before going into the studio! So I had to think fast and came up with the theme of "springtime." My wife then suggested I do "April Showers," which you rarely hear jazz players perform, but Don Glanden did it on his CD. So I put that one in. A couple of the tunes only had vague hints of springtime, like "I Like New York in June—How About You?" I actually had to learn a couple of tunes for the first time, like "Make Me Rainbows" by the great film composer John Willliams. I always liked that tune, but no one ever played it on gigs.

AAJ: Speaking of movies, I was surprised to learn in your website autobiography that you yourself were actually involved in a movie called Birdy (1984), from the 1980s, with Nicholas Cage. How on earth did you get involved with just one movie, which I recall was a rather unusual film? And as an actor, arranger, and performer to boot!

LM: Well, when they made that movie, they decided to shoot most of the external scenes in Philadelphia, which is the locale of the story. Well, a clarinet and saxophonist named Harold Karabel—he passed away about ten years ago—he was called because the assistant director had been in the army with Harold, and they had a scene where they needed a band to play at a high school prom. The guy said, "Harold, I want you to put a band together to play this scene."

So the director—the famous director Alan Parker—said that the band members should be in their twenties and thirties, but Harold was in his fifties, so he was eliminated, but he was asked to act as contractor. So he called me, and I agreed to do it because it seemed like it would be fun, but I myself had to lie about my age a bit on the application! So we did the movie. We played "Rockin' Robin'" and a couple of other songs that had been hits in the 1960s.

AAJ: So that was your fifteen minutes of fame. [laughter].

LM: The funny thing is that I still get residual checks from the film. Twenty three years later! And I've had people call me up and say, "I saw a guy in a movie who looks just like you!" [laughter.]

AAJ: Getting back to your recordings, can you tell us it a bit about the one called My Shining Hour?

LM: That's somewhat older than It Might As Well Be Spring. I made it around 1995 as I recall. At the time, I was playing at Chris' Jazz Café in Philly. It had recently opened and was run by the original "Chris," Chris Dimitri. I had a trio that was there every Friday night with me, Dominic Mancini on bass, and Bill Schilling on piano.

At the time, there was a Canadian record label, EPE, Ed Preston Enterprises. One of their staff heard me on Al Raymond's big band album. He contacted Al and me, with the idea to do a small group album based on the music of Harold Arlen. But that staff person left the label, so Al Raymond suggested making the recording independently. So I picked ten Harold Arlen songs and did small group arrangements. We recorded it with Schilling on piano and guitar, Mancini on bass, and Butch Reed on drums. We sent the master to EPE records, and then they put it out. It was later put out on Alana records by the guy who originally suggested it. It may even have come out on a third label as well.

McKenna's Influence on Other Musicians

AAJ: Whenever I talk to a musician in Philly, your name always comes up. They all regard you with great affection and respect, as one of their mentors as well as someone they enjoy working with on gigs. You seem to me to be as well an almost mystical transmitter of a legacy. So, when you teach and give advice, what do you specifically try to convey to the guys?

LM: Well, you know, I think they give me a lot more credit than I deserve, especially your pianist friend, Tom Lawton. Tom is always saying, "I learned that from Larry." And I say, "No, I never showed you that!"

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