In LJN’s series where musicians write about their inspirations and idols, London-born, South African-raised, Toronto-based singer/songwriter Nicky Schrire writes about Kate McGarry:
Nicky Schire writes: Some jazz singers can interpret a song very well. This means delivering the verse and chorus and making the often well-known ditty your own. Some jazz singers look forward to reaching for the first improvisational chorus, knowing that they will feel more comfortable when they disperse a storm over the harmonic changes.
Some jazz singers prefer to come up with original material, with or without lyrics, singing new music that suits them like a glove. It is rare to hear a jazz singer who excels in all three areas, but Kate McGarry is this singer.
Whether she’s putting her stamp on a track from the Great American Songbook or tackling the hits of singer-songwriter gods Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell or Paul Simon, Kate McGarry is undeniably herself. Her voice possesses a malleability, a gum-like flexibility that sees her go from low to high in seconds and with maximum emotional results. She’s a singer of singers, both as a community-minded musician and the duo choice for singers like Kurt Elling and Jo Lawry. She is also a musician’s singer, lending her voice to recordings by pianist Fred Hersch and drummer John Hollenbeck. Here are ten Kate McGarry tracks I just can’t live without.
1. Gypsy in my soul of Show me (2003)
When performed by Kate on one of her early albums, this 1937 Clay Boland/Moe Jaffe swinger is thoroughly modernized. Kate uses a straight groove that allows her to spice up the verse with an utterly seductive melodic rendition. His use of blues patterns and riffs is both immensely musical and thrilling. It’s hard to remember Doris Day singing the same song in carefree vein after Kate’s soulful rendition.
2. Walk in of streets of mercy (2005)
My earliest memory of hearing Kate sing an original song was on her album Streets of Mercy. It was also the first time I heard Kate in a folk context, accompanied by her now husband, guitarist Keith Ganz. It would become a collaboration that would shape the sound of his records and his music. While I loved hearing Kate sing Gershwin and Berlin repertoire, she was so comfortable in that context. The simplicity of his lyrics, the clear form of the song and a vocal delivery that was so much in line with his delivery of a more “jazzy” repertoire. One of Kate’s (many) strengths is being so musically authentic that there is consistency in her singing. She never “turns on” folk inflections or flips a switch to activate “jazz Kate.” She is herself, through and through.
3. The heather on the hill of Target (2007)
Musical comedy Brigadoon is not the best work of Lerner and Loewe (I would give that honor to my lovely lady, in case you were wondering…). However, a shining gem in this mountain adventure of a movie is their song The heather on the hill. When you hear Kate sing this song, it’s like it was written for her. In an intimate duet with pianist Gary Versace, the two musicians set the scene for a sparkling, delicate but grounded version of the song. One of my teachers once commented on the similarities between the voices of Kate and Rickie Lee Jones. Although I like some Rickie Lee hits, I’m not a big fan of his “jazz” album. Pop-Pop. The baby quality of his voice rings like affectation in my ears. While Kate’s vocal quality surely possesses a childlike wonder, she never rocks into childish tones. This ballad is a prime example of her exploiting the softer corners of her sound while remaining mature and heartfelt. And the fact that she chooses to include the creepy verse of this song is the piece de resistance atop an already elegant offering. Kisses from the chef!
4. Times are changing of If less is more… Nothing is all (2008)
Kate attacking Bob Dylan is a dream, especially if, like me, you like Bob’s writing but less his “singing”. (Yes, I put it in quotes intentionally!) This rendition allows me to absorb the lyrics without being distracted by Bob’s one-tone voice. And, what’s more, Kate has such freedom and ownership of the lyrics. She thinks them, she feels them, and through her fiery interpretation, we rush to celebrate change instead of fear it. (There is also a LIVE VERSION)
5. We kiss in the shadows of girls talk (2012)
Part of the joy of a live Kate McGarry experience is hearing her thoughts spoken between songs. As a performer and educator, Kate is a beautiful, thoughtful communicator. His introduction to a song can completely change the way you interpreted the meaning of the song. I will never forget hearing him present Rodgers and Hammerstein’s We kiss in the shadows to a performance. Kate referenced the American political climate at the time, which saw Proposition 8 in the Supreme Court, threatening the possibility and legality of same-sex marriage. when I knew The king and me context, Kate’s framing of the melody made it contemporary in such a brilliant and punchy way. (He also reiterated how far Rodgers and Hammerstein were ahead of the curve. Similarly, You need to be taught of South Pacific comes to mind in his “word to the wise” message.)
6. I can’t help loving this man of Genevieve and Ferdinand (2014)
In the introduction to Kate’s work, I cited her as a singer who is equally at ease whether it’s just performing a lead, improvising over chord changes or singing original music. So far I haven’t included Kate swinging in a traditional vein and so am including her more traditional version of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein. I can’t help loving this man of Showboat. This is a duet album that highlights Kate and Keith’s musical simpatico. This musical connection is never more evident than when you watch them perform live. It’s a masterclass in body language for musicians and the mesmerizing, heady effect on the music being created is undeniable. Watch and listen for yourselves!
seven. My Funny Valentine of The subject tonight is love (2018)
Part of the thrill of jazz is the ability to reinvent standard repertoire, shedding new light on the melody or lyrics of a tune. My ears delight in the sounds of a jazz singer spinning a song on its axis IF the arrangement serves the song. (Do not sing All of me in an irregular time signature for fun, please!) I recognize that some people love vocal jazz as it is and recoil at drastic changes in harmonies, tempos, or worse, song form. But reinventing a tune is almost necessary when the song is not only often sung, but exaggerated. A great example of this is My Funny Valentine. I’ll take Chet Baker to sing it anytime. However, if I’m not going to dine on Chet’s soft tones, then I want Kate McGarry’s version. It is an interpretation and arrangement for the modern day romantic.
8. here comes the sun of What to wear in the dark (2021)
Kate and Keith released a triumphant post-pandemic album in 2021. It boasted more singer-songwriter repertoire than previous releases, building on their signature move to perform contemporary works in a jazz context . Their version of George Harrison here comes the sun is triumphant and Kate is in top form. Kate is public about sustaining a career-threatening vocal injury and one can’t help but take away a message of hope from her vocal performance on this track. After an organ solo by Gary Versace, Kate returns with an outro that sees her in Gypsy in my soul territory. The same teacher who heard the influence of Rickie Lee Jones in Kate’s singing also once said that the presence of the blues in one form or another in jazz, whether traditional or contemporary, is fundamental to the gender. Well, Kate gets high marks if this is believed to be true. It cleans up with bluesy inflections and the result is pretty dang rock.
9. I carry your heart with me (I carry it) of Mousse (2008)
LINK TO BANDCAMP
I touched on Kate’s prowess as a collaborator earlier. One of his most special collaborations was with the vocal group Mousse, which included friends and singers Theo Bleckmann, Peter Eldridge, Lauren Kinhan and Luciana Souza. The band only released one album in this setup (although thankfully the band continues to live on with Jo Lawry replacing Souza in the line-up) and a highlight of that record was Kate’s setting of the poem ee cummings. I carry your heart with me (I carry it) to the music. The composition manages to present the five singers both as individuals and as a whole. The structure of the song is equally appealing. The music swells, recedes, then culminates in a catchy ending with contrapuntal melodies dancing around each other. It shows another side of Kate as a songwriter and makes me eager to hear what else she creates for Mousse in the near future.
ten. Cloth of Songs that I like very much (2013)
Drummer John Hollenbeck has teamed up with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band for a trilogy of albums which has seen him arrange popular music for the band with vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann, and pianist Gary Versace. The results were rich in textures, colors and a fantastic display of popular song as jazz repertoire. There are so many songs from these albums that delight-Cycling race, God only knows, true colors. But if I had to choose a song, it would be Imogen Heap Cloth on the first of three recordings. I love Kate singing this song with her openness (both in sound and honesty). Initially, she sings simply and sparingly before rising to the choir like a bird propelled upwards by a gust of wind. It’s stately yet understated and padded in John’s shimmering, multicolored arrangement. A musical nugget. Just like Kate.
LINK: Kate McGarry website
Kate McGarry’s three Grammy nominations in 2008, 2018 and 2020
latest album What to Wear in the Dark (2021) on Resilience Music Alliance (RMA)