Kate McGarry: Beauty and the Bus

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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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 forward—oh 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 toe—not 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).

The Beauty

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.

They all work quite seriously at these goals, which transcend the type of music they happen to be playing. This helps account for the stylistic diversity of their sets, which mix up jazz, folk, rock, pop, and Brazilian; the band is just as likely to cover Björk and Toninho Horta as Cole Porter and McGarry's own, well-crafted tunes.

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 Philosophy—What 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.

I missed seeing another favorite, which was done in the second set (alas, always a risk if you don't stay for both). "Looking Back" was written by pianist Jimmy Rowles, who also gifted us with his equally gorgeous but better-known "The Peacocks." I believe Ganz and McGarry recorded this at home, which gives it just the right blend of intimacy and purity of sound. Some would categorize this track as the ideal fit for McGarry's breathy, often-girlish tone; although it nestles in the jazz repertoire, it offers the simple directness of a folk tune, and McGarry delivers it directly from her heart to yours.

One more item: at first I didn't understand what McGarry meant about Girl Talk being a tribute to the female singers who influenced her, since none of the material seemed to have the signature of anyone in particular. The inspiration was more in their encouragement to follow your instincts and your stars, and tell your story straight. In that case, we all should be talking more like girls.

A Final Note

I have watched McGarry grow steadily as an artist since her first CD, Show Me (Palmetto, 2003), gaining assurance as she finds more contentment in her life and work. At the dire risk of getting rather New Agey here, it seems to me that the freer and more courageous she becomes, the more often she rings those universal bells of beauty and truth. I expect this is why she touches so many people now, and will continue to do so for all the generations to come.

Bus? What bus?

Photo Credit

All Photos: Matteo Trilsolini

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