Kate McGarry: Beauty and the Bus
I recently drove into the Big Apple to see singer Kate McGarry's band celebrate the release of their Girl Talk CD (Palmetto, 2012) at the Jazz Standard. It was a stressful drive, given the rush-hour timing and need to watch for idiots steering two tons of metal with their knees as they text "Wassup?" to their friends.
But when I finally reached the club, I came upon a legal parking place, right there on the street. Huzzah! So I quickly lined up for the swoop, shifted into R, and ...a taxi zipped in to let somebody off. I couldn't back up, and I wouldn't go forwardoh no, I'm not giving this up! (Insert unprintables here.)
I'm pretty sure steam came out of my ears as the passenger took her sweet time getting out, and someone else ran down the street to jump in, leaving me stuck in the dreaded double-park position.
Horns began to blare as cursing and middle fingers filled the air. Although I'd usually give up and slink away, I was already late. Besides, there was ample room for people to get around me, even if they hated doing it. But then there was...The Bus.
I saw it turn into the narrow street behind me, filling my rear-view mirror like one of those evil, driverless trucks in a Stephen King story. It was going too fast, and I was stuck right in its path, and suddenly it was there, racing past with hardly an inch to spare. I gaped at all that gigantic metal zooming by and waited for the crunch, sure that there was something sticking out from one of us that would fatally puncture the other.
The beast went on for blocks while I held my breath, helpless and trembling from head to toenot the ideal combination for starting a gay night on the town. As I lurched down the club's stairs I doubted whether any music could soothe my jangly nerves.
Well, I was wrong. That's because McGarry & co. provided the kind of rare performance that transcends angst, replacing it with wonder and joy. What I witnessed, that first set, was something indefinable, universal, and glorious that caught and lifted the entire place. Whether you want to call it "art" or "beauty," it trumped my trauma; it also triumphed over the combat conditions of a packed, overheated room and unavoidable, unprecedented delays in food and drink orders (thanks to the classy Standard for comping the tardy libations).
Years ago, I developed the Nite & Disk format for comparing the experience of listening to a group's CD and watching them perform it live (no, YouTube doesn't count). There are times when the Nite and the Disk bear little resemblance to each other, and others when they are virtual clones. But every so often there's that special alchemy when the players are clearly inspired by an audience which levitates happily in return. This kind of magic was percolating at the Standard that night. It helped that that the club was sold out and overflowing with local singers and musicians, many of them dear friends, colleagues, mentors and students, and everyone missing McGarry since her move to North Carolina.
Although McGarry soon wins over anyone who hears her, whether it's in über-hip New York or (literally) in outer Mongolia on a State Department tour, this audience was unusually warm and appreciative. I caught sight of Fred Hersch, Peter Eldridge, Linda Ciofalo, Michelle Walker, Maria Schneider, Kendra Shank, Jo Lawry (currently touring with Sting), Roz Corral, Jeanie LoVetri, James Shipp, Nicky Schrire, Tessa Souter, Kurt Elling, John Pizzarelli, Jessica Molaskey, Andrea Wolper, Amy Cervini, and Palmetto exec Pat Rustici (beaming).
The band consisted of McGarry and guitarist/co-producer/husband Keith Ganz (introduced as "my partner in all kinds of crimes"), as well as two more of the most capable, intuitive and big-eared players around: Gary Versace on organ and Clarence Penn on drums. (Please note: the bottom and groove provided by superb bassist Reuben Rogers are on the CD, but were not in the house.)
What They Do
There's no question that Kate McGarry's band is one of the best we have; for me, it's because of its mastery, ease, creativity, and commitment to taking the music further and deeper. While some groups use that mandate to get more cacophonous, since flying a "free" flag can justify all kinds of jumble and noise, this group's obvious respect for tradition and melody leads it in the completely opposite direction. The kind of depth the group seeks makes the music more accessible, not less; moreover, it reveals the emotional landscape of each player in each moment, an expressive liberation that can free up the listener as well.