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Interviews

Meet Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz

By Published: May 10, 2005
Since moving to New York five years ago Kate McGarry's musical approach has expanded from jazz standards and ballads through a percussive, electronic sound to her current pop- and folk-informed approach. Guitarist Keith Ganz has been an integral part of her latest evolution since they started playing together. They were married in 2004, and are inseparable musically and personally. Both have sparkling new CD's.

Mercy Streets (Palmetto Records)

It just came out a couple of weeks ago. We had the CD release party at Joe's Pub in NYC with the same band as on the CD. It was a great night, it was sold out and the band sounded great even though we hadn't played with Kenny Wollesen since the recording. We just had a little rehearsal in the green room with him playing brushes on the table and Keith and Steve with their guitars unplugged.

After meeting Keith I switched bands from an organ trio to this acoustic guitar based sound and we had very similar ideas of where it should go. Kate had arranged "Chelsea Morning" and "Joga" for her electric band, but just from the sound of her voice I heard her in this more intimate context. Her arrangements didn't change, but they sound so different in an acoustic setting. I did the arrangements for "Lola" and "How Deep is the Ocean" with this particular band in mind. I wrote "Snow Picnic" for a band I used to play in. I loved the tune, but it felt specific to that band so I had kind of left it behind. When Kate heard it—it's a fast melody that jumps all over the place and changes key three times in one bar—she liked it, and I wondered if she could sing it. We went through it five or six times, and she had it. It sounds like I wrote it for her voice. We collaborated with Steve Cardenas on "Aquelas Coisa Todas." We each improvised over the solo section, took the phrases we liked the best from all three of us (mostly from Kate), and made a little soli out of it. "Do You Know What It Means" has been getting quite a bit of air play which is fun because we recorded it in Keith's apartment the week we started going out. We tried it a couple of times in the studio, but the feeling wasn't as strong. The more contemporary songs are spontaneous and improvisatory, but the sound and the mood are specific—it doesn't just turn into a jam session. It took us maybe seven or eight gigs to get to the point where we could play a tune like "Chelsea Morning" and really create it in the moment but still keep that specific sound it's supposed to have.

Music for People (available on CD Baby)

Keith: These songs are about melodies and letting them unfold however they wanted to. That's why some of the songs took so long to complete. I'd get to a point where I couldn't hear what came next but I couldn't force it. I would just keep playing the song up to that point till I finally heard the next note. I wrote and recorded them separately over a couple of years. That's one thing I like about the CD: it has more range than if I had recorded the entire CD within a couple of days. I was really involved with each tune when I recorded it. The record was an opportunity for me to play as sparsely and delicately as I wanted without having to compete for sonic space with a band or background noise in a club. It's more about music than guitar playing, although there are some things that appeal to me as a guitarist when I hear them because I haven't heard many people do them. "Old Dogs" definitely has an old-timey feel (almost like stride piano), but no, I wasn't thinking about Django specifically. When I think of him I think of his single-note playing with a pick. "Transpose" is written to a poem by Jane Shippen, an old friend. She wrote it in college. Years later she emailed it to me. It's so wild and brilliant. I followed the lyrics, and the music just wrote itself. I wasn't sure I wanted to include a song about picking your nose, but I think it belongs on the CD because it's as true a moment for me as any of the other songs. The CD release party will be May 14 at the 55 Bar. It won't be just solo guitar—it'll be a quartet with Sean Smith, Vito Lesczak, and Kate. We'll expand on the music on the record. At the moment I don't feel like I could play three hours of solo acoustic guitar in a little club and have it be as complete as I'd want it to be. If I could do that in a nice big hall where you can hear every nuance I might give it a shot.

Current tour

We played Regatta Bar in Boston and did a few concerts around New York and New Jersey. We're out here (west coast) for the week starting in LA then to Santa Cruz, up to San Francisco. We're doing concerts, some Borders in-stores, radio interviews and three clinics. We're really enjoying bringing this music to people and the audiences have been absolutely fabulous. Very enthusiastic and that makes it really special, to connect so strongly with the people. We'll be doing Spoleto USA in Charleston in May and we're looking forward to a lot more touring later this year.

Leaves of Grass with Fred Hersch and Kurt Elling

Kate: I met Fred a couple of years ago, and he asked me to be on the benefit record (Classical Action) with ten different vocalists on it. He and I did "Nobody Else But Me." We did some gigs together and eventually he asked me to sing with his ensemble on Leaves of Grass, which was originally performed with Norma Winstone who's a wonderful singer and writer but lives in London. This year we did a recording and a tour and played Carnegie Hall. Kurt set something up at the Steppenwolf Theater in Chicago for this coming December. I think there will be more in 2006. Being on the larger stages and connecting with a larger audience has had a strengthening effect on me. Every time we finish a performance I'm in a state of Whitman's vision of humanity and love of nature. I hope we continue to do that a long time.

Kurt Elling

Kate: I learned so much from him, his manner, how generous he is, his way of being with people when he sings. He was very supportive. We have a nice sound together, I loved singing with him.

Fred Hersch

Kate: He's very creative, and is usually working on a number of different projects at once. He's also generous and loves to give a chance to people he sees something in, but he doesn't act like he's doing you any favor. He likes to give his two cents on what he hears, and I enjoy that. He's been like a big brother to me.

Electric guitar to acoustic

Keith: In '98 I moved up to New York and started playing jazz gigs. I don't think I ever would have thought my North Carolina background had influenced me until I was in New York a while. I started to realize how different my sensibilities were than a lot of the people around me whose music sounded hectic to me. I never had an acoustic guitar until after I was in New York. I joined a band that had kind of a world music sound, and they really wanted an acoustic guitarist. For a while I was resisting because it's hard to amplify an acoustic guitar with a band. I got one and started down the road of finding an acoustic guitar sound that would work in a live situation. That took a couple of years and a lot of experiments with different guitars and equipment. When I finally found that sound I couldn't go back to electric. For me it's prettier and more direct. I've hardly played any electric guitar since then.

I've always loved Pat Metheny's acoustic guitar sound. His albums usually have one song where he plays acoustic, and I used to wonder why he didn't do a whole album. I was looking for a way to get that kind of lush sound in a live setting. I love the folky finger-style players like James Taylor, and I started figuring some of that out. A singer/songwriter Paul Curreri from Virginia does this amazing finger-style acoustic guitar stuff that I've tried to learn. Those skills have really helped in the duos with Kate because I can create a lot of different rhythmic feels I couldn't do when I was just a jazz player. It's funny because you think of jazz technically as the most advanced thing. I thought of myself that way before I heard Paul doing a solo show and thankfully he relieved me of that notion. After that I just dove into orchestrating things on solo guitar.

Sean Smith (bassist)

Keith: He was the first person I met in New York who I really connected with musically. He asked me to replace Bill Charlap in his quartet when Bill started getting too busy. Playing with Sean's quartet is always intense, always at a really high level—the players, their intentions, his compositions. Sean introduced me and Kate. The first time Kate and I played together we were in the corner of this bar with nobody listening, having an amazing time. I spent the next year wondering why she didn't call me.

Move to New York

Kate: I left LA in '96 because I felt like I had reached a plateau musically. I went to study in an ashram for 2½ years. During that time I was singing sacred Indian music and chanting but not performing much. After a while I realized I needed to perform. I moved to New York, and right away I knew I was in the right place—there was so much music. I met Steve Cardenas right away, then Luciana Souza. I liked her writing, what she was doing. I worked with her on Brazilian music, Portuguese pronunciation. We did some shows together and really liked working together.

Religious aspects

Kate: I haven't written that many songs. I started writing "Man of God" when I lived in the ashram. The inspiration for that and for "Going In" is people looking to each other, taking care of each other, seeing the highest in each other. I come from a background of organized religion, and have felt disappointed in the leadership of the church in general, not that I didn't gain a lot from it.

Scat

Kate: I haven't been scatting nearly as much as I used to. I've been improvising with the words. Scatting on one tune after another it's easy for the music to disintegrate so that it doesn't feel like anything.

Irish folk music

Kate: It's a part of me. I don't do it all the time, just when it feels right. I don't claim to be authentic in my accent or anything—this is just how I hear it. It seems to resonate with most audiences. Keith: Last year on St. Patrick's Day I was playing a gig in a hotel lounge where customers don't often listen. People kept requesting the singer to do Irish tunes. She had a book of Irish tunes but we didn't really know them, and they came out like diatonic jazz tunes. So I called Kate on my cell phone and asked her to sing one. She started singing "Peggy Gordon," and I put the cell phone up to the microphone that fed the little amp. Immediately the whole place fell silent. It sounded far away and "static-y" like a short wave radio transmission from Ireland. Everyone was completely transfixed.

Moss (vocal group)

Kate: Luciana had an idea to form this group with different kinds of singers. Lauren Kinhan and Peter Eldridge are from New York Voices. Theo Bleckmann is known for being more experimental. The group is open to all kinds of material. Luciana rearranged Joni Mitchell's "Shadows and Light." I wrote a piece to some e.e. cummings poetry. We're hoping to continue for a long time.

The Different Moods of the Blues

Kate: I knew Eli Yamin from the ashram. He invited me to do this blues group with Lincoln Center Arts Education Institute. We've been doing these tours—some are at Lincoln Center, some are at colleges, high schools, and elementary schools. We all contribute music. There's no string bass—Bob Stewart plays tuba (Howard Johnson subs when Bob can't make it.) I'm learning about stamina and how to approach each show as a new one even though the songs are the same.

Karen Hammack

Kate: She's still one of my favorite pianists. When I went to New York I really missed working with her. She's a great accompanist, listens very well, has a great feel, leaves lots of space. I look forward to having her as a guest Monday night. Karen played on Show Me [McGarry's first Palmetto CD].

Clinics ("The Art of the Duo")

At our clinics we talk about ways to find that space where the duo feels open and free rather than limited. It's all there: you just have to give yourself to the situation and not try to duplicate a larger band. A lot of it is about independence. If the singer is able to move the music forward rhythmically and harmonically on their own, that frees up the accompanist to orchestrate, play counterpoint, play with textures, then the singer has more coming back to interact with. It opens the whole thing up. We also talk about being able to be both a leader and a follower. Some people are used to leading 90% of the time and some are used to following 90%. We want them to think about mixing it up.

Next project

Keith: It'll probably be a trio with bass and drums and maybe some voices. I'm hearing Kate wordlessly doubling some of the melodies and maybe Theo Bleckmann too.

Kate: Maybe a more straight ahead record, more standards-based. At some point I would love to do a record of Toninho Horta's music. I feel strongly about his harmonies and his melodies and the words even though it's not my first language.

Visit Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz on the web.



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