Kate McGarry: Beauty and the Bus
One of the highest goals in music is to "tell your story" (a favorite maxim of legendary vocalist Mark Murphy). Naturally, lyrics make this easier, but it's also possible to narrate without words. Kindly note: this is not that Kardashian/Facebook brand of sharing where sincerity is as extinct as the dodo, and every shallow experience is hoarded and hyped. There are no tricks or manipulations in McGarry's music: it's a gimmick-free zone.
For example, it's rare to find an artist who can write a successful song about her parents' "beautiful" deaths that was honest and natural rather than maudlin, preachy, or Hallmark-predictable (McGarry lost both of them recently). The only other name that springs to mind is Fred Hersch, who built an entire show around his nearly fatal coma that managed to be both riveting and funny.
It's no coincidence that the two of them are fast friends.
Moreover, the song was tuneful and swinging enough to fit nicely into a set of jazz, and its lyrics were absorbing. In between references to sweet chariots carrying people home, McGarry describes the central role of music in her family of ten siblings, alluding to its bonding and healing impact without having to hit you over the head with it. "Ten Little Indians" is not on this CD, but perhaps will make the next. Meanwhile, it blew everyone away with its ability to transmute pain into art.
Enough PhilosophyWhat About the Music?
One distinctive trademark of McGarry's band is its tendency to "play the spaces"instead of being afraid of silence and filling every beat, everyone is constantly making thoughtful and deliberate choices. In fact, these "empty" interludes engage the listeners even further; by leaving room for reaction and their own interpretations; the music draws them deeper into the song.
During my years of knowing this group, I've never seen McGarry or her compadres duplicate a performance. They say you can never step in the same river twice, and this group is known for applying that idea to music. Several of my favorites from Girl Talk appeared that night in gleaming new dimensions.
Chief among them was George Gershwin's "The Man I Love." On both CD and stage, it gets a dreamy soundwash that highlights the mystery and wistfulness of its lyrics. But where so many singers make a dirge out of the song's disappointment, McGarry keeps her power; at the end, she even hints at impatience by escalating the word "waiting" in the direction of demand. When recording the tune, its loneliness is subliminally expressed with a slight reverb on the last two "waiting"s, so that the word seems to echo in an empty room.
It happens that my fiancé, bassist Norm Lotz, was able to catch McGarry's performance in San Francisco two days after New York's. Apparently the bicoastal audiences had the same reaction: the California girls followed every syllable, he said, "as if the song spoke to their deepest yearnings." This song has always been a lady killer, but this is the only arrangement that ever gave me chills; part of its effect is that it's condensed to just one chorus, which gives the message an even greater wallop.
Another highlight of Girl Talk is the duo between McGarry and Kurt Elling on the beautiful "O Cantador" (aka "Like a Lover"). Arranged by McGarry with some superb, unexpected harmonies, this track demonstrates how perfectly two voices can complement one another. McGarry's sweet softness and Elling's dry, angular sound create a musical yin and yang, while being able to witness their sensuous and joyful interaction took the experience right over the top.
It's Not All Serious
Any description of the Kate McGarry group would be incomplete without mentioning its playfulness and humor. Although it sounds like McGarry recorded the archaic, sexist lyrics of "Girl Talk" with her tongue firmly in cheek, onstage she vamps it up into a riotous spoof. As a bonus, there was one of those blazing scat solos that she tends to fire off as casually as other people order a Whopper at a drive-up window. "Charade" had its satirical moments as well, evoking the band's treatment of "Whatever Lola Wants" on Mercy Streets (Palmetto, 2006). Meanwhile, there are always frequent grins flashing around the bandstand as each player appreciates and supports the others.