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Kate McGarry: The Turtle, The Paradox, and The Big Yes

By Published: May 21, 2007
KM: I did know that. And you get that from his lyrics. I felt his care, I felt like he cared about me. He's also such a free, free improviser. I didn't even know him as a jazz artist, because I saw him on Saturday Night Live. At that time I didn't know jazz from anything else.

But when I was taking piano and organ lessons—with my Mom, we would go together—my teacher was giving me Bill Evans solos to learn. He tried to make a piece for me to audition with, since he'd had another student who got into Berklee [College of Music, in Boston]. And that was a big, big deal. But we couldn't afford Berklee—and thank God we couldn't, because I'm so glad I didn't go. Back in 1981 it wasn't good for vocalists; you just didn't get what you need there. It's much different now.

AAJ: Tell me more about the Bill Evans solos.

KM: I couldn't play them for anything, but they started putting the possibilities into my ears. I remember when he died—someone came into the practice room to tell me, and I had his book in front of me. I was learning the solo to "Time Remembered. Then I started listening to Keith Jarrett in high school; I played My Song (ECM, 1974) over and over again. Someone gave me a Billie Holiday record, but I couldn't get with it at that time [sings the hokey choir part on "God bless the child, that's got his own. ] What is this? It sounded so corny to me.

Later, my teacher Dr. Horace Boyer was a drop-the-needle guy, and this was the lesson: it was Carmen [McRae] singing "When Sunny Gets Blue, from the album Bittersweet (Koch Records, 1964). Do you have this record?

AAJ: No. But I'm going to get it.

KM: Hands down, this was the record that I learned jazz from. It was an album of ballads, and she played piano on a number of the tracks, and it had a lot of guitar on it as well. I would listen to a phrase over and over. [Sings] "When Sunny gets blue —Sunny, Suh-uh-nee—what is that? The embellishment of jazz. To me, of all the jazz singers, Carmen's the great storyteller. I listened to the way she phrased things, and the way she'd arpeggiate; you could tell she understood the harmonic structure of the song. Then after Carmen it was Sarah [Vaughan], Anita O'Day, and Ella [Fitzgerald], and Jon Hendricks.

AAJ: Which brings us to your singing: I really appreciate your honesty and directness. We live in a world where using the words "troop surge" instead of "troop escalation" is supposed to sugarcoat the reality of war. In the midst of all this dilution of language and meaning, your music is an antidote: it's a straightforward, bullshit-free zone.

KM: Thank you!

AAJ: Remember we talked about your version of "Heather on the Hill and how much I like it? I had this whole scenario constructed in my head —"She must have loved someone who loved that song, and they died, and that's why the song hits me so hard. So I took the Target CD to my voice lesson [with Thom Filo]. After I played the song for him, I asked what you were doing that was so powerful. I'll tell you what he said, and you tell me if that's what you were actually doing.


AAJ: Thom said, "It's powerful because she seems less interested in her voice than in her message. It sounds as if she's making up the words as she goes along, like she's talking, which creates a real intimacy."

KM: That's it. The song is about the story, it wasn't about the voice.

AAJ: He even pointed out some places where you were running out of breath.

KM: It wasn't a technical accomplishment in any way. I've studied a lot of different kinds of singing—like bel canto—and professionally, I've been asked to do a lot of strong, belting things. But what comes out most naturally is a kind of speech singing, which is more about telling the story.

AAJ: I happened to be sitting next to your teacher, Jeanette LoVetri, at your IAJE [International Association of Jazz Educators] gig. She's a very dynamic lady.

KM: She taught me since I moved to New York. Luciana Souza and Theo Bleckmann pointed me to her. It's been really great work, developing chest and head voice and separating them. She's like a fine-tuning auto mechanic who can really recalibrate a voice. I've seen her take people who are hoarse to the point of not being able to speak, and within ten or fifteen minutes, effect a huge change in their voices. I'm certified in her method, which has been really useful in strengthening my sound. If you ever heard the very first record I did in 1992, you'd know how much she's helped me. It was like [sings like Minnie Mouse]; fortunately, it's out of print.

AAJ: You and Keith work together all the time, and musically you often double each other. I have this image that you're sitting over breakfast, eating pancakes, passing the syrup and making up the lines in "Lola ["Whatever Lola Wants, from Mercy Streets, (Palmetto, 2005)]. I just love the wit in that.

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