In LJN’s series where musicians write about their inspirations and idols, London-born, South African-raised and Toronto-based vocalist/composer Nicky Schrire writes about Kate McGarry:
Nicky Schrire writes: Some jazz vocalists can interpret the heck out of a song. That means delivering the verse and chorus and making the oft well-known ditty their own. Some jazz vocalists cannot wait to reach the first chorus of improvisation, knowing they’ll feel most at home when scatting up a storm over the harmonic changes.
Some jazz vocalists prefer to offer up original material, with lyrics or without, new singing music that fits them like a glove. It’s seldom one hears a jazz vocalist who excels in all three of these arenas, but Kate McGarry is that vocalist.
Whether she is putting her stamp on a tune from the Great American Songbook or tackling hits by singer-songwriter gods Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell or Paul Simon, Kate McGarry is undeniably herself. Her voice possesses a malleability, a chewing gum-like flexibility, that sees her swoop from low to high in seconds and with maximum emotional results. She is a singers’ singer, both as a community-minded musician and the duetting choice for vocalists like Kurt Elling and Jo Lawry. She is also a musician’s singer, lending her voice to the recordings of pianist Fred Hersch and drummer John Hollenbeck. Here are ten tracks by Kate McGarry that I simply cannot do without.
1. Gypsy In My Soul from Show Me (2003)
When interpreted by Kate on one of her earliest albums, this Clay Boland/Moe Jaffe swinger from 1937 is completely modernised. Kate uses a straight groove that allows her to pepper the verse with an utterly beguiling melodic interpretation. Her use of blues motifs and riffs are both immensely musical and thrilling as heck. It’s hard to recall Doris Day singing the same song in a happy-go-lucky vein after Kate’s, well, soulful rendition.
2. Going In from Mercy Streets (2005)
My first recollection of hearing Kate sing an original tune was on her album Mercy Streets. It was also my first time hearing Kate in a folk context, accompanied by her now husband, guitarist Keith Ganz. It would become a collaboration that shaped the sound of her records and music to comd. While I relished hearing Kate sing repertoire from Gershwin and Berlin, she was so at home in this context. The simplicity of her lyrics, the clear songform, and a vocal delivery that was so aligned with her delivery of more “jazzy” repertoire. One of Kate’s (many) strengths is being so musically authentic that there is a consistency to 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 from The Target (2007)
The musical Brigadoon is hardly Lerner and Loewe’s finest work (I’d give that honor to My Fair Lady, in case you were wondering…). However, a shining gem in that highland fling of a film is their song The Heather On The Hill. When you hear Kate sing this tune, it’s as if it was written for her. In an intimate duo setting with pianist Gary Versace, the two musicians set the scene for a sparkling, delicate yet grounded version of the song. A teacher of mine once commented on the similarities between Kate and Rickie Lee Jones’ voices. While I like certain Rickie Lee hits, I’m not a huge fan of her “jazz” album Pop Pop. The baby-like quality of her voice rings as affectation to my ears. While Kate’s vocal quality surely possesses a childlike wonder, it never teeters into childish tones. This ballad is such a great example of her harnessing the sweeter corners of her sound while remaining adult and sincere. And the fact that she chooses to include the goosebump-inducing verse of this song, is the pièce de résistance atop an already classy offering. Chef’s kiss!
4. The Times They Are A-Changin from If Less Is More… Nothing Is Everything (2008)
Kate tackling Bob Dylan is a dream, especially if, like me, you’re fond of Bob’s songwriting but less so of his “singing.” (Yes, I put that in inverted commas intentionally!) This rendition allows me to absorb the lyrics without being distracted by Bob’s one-tone vocals. And, what’s more, Kate has such freedom and ownership of the lyrics. She means them, she feels them, and through her spirited rendition we rush to celebrate change instead of fearing it. (There is also a LIVE VERSION)
5. We Kiss In A Shadow from Girl Talk (2012)
Part of the joy of a live Kate McGarry experience is getting to hear her spoken thoughts in between songs. As a performer and educator, Kate is a beautiful and thoughtful communicator. Her introduction to a song can completely change how you interpreted the meaning of the song. I’ll never forget hearing her introduce Rodgers and Hammerstein’s We Kiss In A Shadow at a performance. Kate referenced the US political climate at the time, which saw Proposition 8 coming before the Supreme Court, threatening the possibility and legality of same-sex marriage. While I knew The King And I context, Kate’s framing of the tune contemporised it in such a brilliant, hard-hitting way. (It also reiterated the degree to which Rodgers and Hammerstein were ahead of the curve. Similarly, You’ve Got To Be Taught from South Pacific springs to mind in its “word to the wise” messaging.)
6. Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man from Genevieve & Ferdinand (2014)
In the introduction to Kate’s work, I cited her as a singer who is equally at home whether simply interpreting a head, improvising over chord changes, or original singing music. Up to this point, I haven’t included Kate swinging in a traditional vein and so I include her more traditional take on Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man from Showboat. This is from a duo album which spotlights Kate and Keith’s musical simpatico. This musical connection is never more obvious than when you watch them perform live. It is a masterclass in body language for musicians and the enchanting, heady effect on the music being created is undeniable. Just watch and listen for yourselves!
7. My Funny Valentine from The Subject Tonight Is Love (2018)
Part of the thrill of jazz is the opportunity to reimagine standard repertoire, shedding new light on the melody or lyrics of a tune. My ears rejoice at the sounds of a jazz vocalist spinning a song on its axis IF the arrangement serves the song. (Don’t sing All of Me in an irregular time signature for the sake of it, I beg of you!) I recognise that some folks like vocal jazz as is and recoil at radical changes to harmonies, tempi or, worse, song form. But reinvention of a tune is almost required when the song is not just oft-sung but oversung. A prime example of this is My Funny Valentine. I’ll take Chet Baker singing it any day. However, if I’m not going to dine out on Chet’s dulcet tones, then I want Kate McGarry’s version. It is an interpretation and arrangement for the modern romantic day.
8. Here Comes The Sun from 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 of interpreting contemporary works within a jazz context. Their version of George Harrison’s Here Comes The Sun is triumphant and Kate is on top form. Kate is public about having suffered 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 a romp of an organ solo from Gary Versace, Kate returns with an outro that sees her in Gypsy In My Soul territory. The same teacher of mine who heard Rickie Lee Jones’ influence in Kate’s singing, also once said that the presence of the blues in some form in jazz, whether traditional or contemporary, is fundamental to the genre. Well, Kate scores high marks if one believes this to be true. She cleans up with blues inflections and the result is pretty dang rocking.
9. I Carry Your Heart With Me (I Carry It In) from Moss (2008)
LINK TO BANDCAMP
I touched on Kate’s prowess as a collaborator earlier. One of her most special collaborations was with the vocal group Moss, which comprised friends and vocalists Theo Bleckmann, Peter Eldridge, Lauren Kinhan and Luciana Souza. The group only released one album in this configuration (though luckily the group lives on with Jo Lawry replacing Souza in the line up) and a highlight of that record was Kate’s setting of the ee cummings poem I Carry Your Heart With Me (I Carry It In) to music. The composition manages to both feature all five singers as individuals and as an ensemble. The structure of the song is equally beguiling. The music swells, retreats, and then builds to a rousing close with contrapuntal melodies that dance around one another. It shows off another side of Kate as a composer and makes me look forward to hearing what else she creates for Moss in the near future.
10. Canvas from Songs I Like A Lot (2013)
The drummer John Hollenbeck teamed up with the Frankfurt Radio Big Band for a trilogy of albums that saw him arrange popular music for the group featuring vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckmann, and pianist Gary Versace. The results were rich in textures, colours, and a fantastic display of popular song as jazz repertoire. There are so many songs from these albums that delight-Bicycle Race, God Only Knows, True Colors. But if I had to choose one track, it would be Imogen Heap’s Canvas off the first of the three recordings. I love Kate singing this song with her trademark openness (both in sound and honesty). Initially, she sings plainly and sparingly before rising to the chorus like a bird propelled upwards by a rush of wind. It’s majestic yet understated and cushioned in John’s multicolored, shimmering arrangement. A musical gem. Just like Kate.
LINK: Kate McGarry’s 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)