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Kate McGarry/Keith Ganz Duo Palooza: New York, NY, April 20, 2013

Dan Bilawsky By

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Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz Duo
55 Bar
New York, NY
April 20, 2013

Informality and high art don't typically walk hand-in-hand but, every now and then, when the stars align, these two ideals find a happy marriage. Such was the case when vocalist Kate McGarry and guitarist Keith Ganz came into town to play a gig at 55 Bar. This unassuming basement nightspot plays host to some of the finest musicians around, yet it remains one of the most casual jazz haunts in the city, ready to welcome those in-the-know or the curious who simply walk by, hear something interesting, and stop in to check out the music and have a drink. On a typical night, the bar can be half empty when the early show starts, as people slowly trickle in at their leisure; on this particular night, however, it was standing room only before a note ever left McGarry's lips.

While McGarry and Ganz left the Big Apple and moved to North Carolina awhile back, they're still viewed by many as treasured members of the New York jazz community and their fans and friends came out en masse for the show. This dynamic duo entertained a packed house for three hours, visiting gems from albums-past, classics they've never recorded, and material from their yet-to-be-released duo date.

The first set of the night opened up with "Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets," from McGarry's Mercy Streets (Palmetto, 2005). Spice, seduction and charm won out on this one, which was immediately followed by a breezy "'Tis Autumn" and a pleasing "Oceano." Percussionist James Shipp, an occasional guest throughout the evening, made his first appearance on the duo's metrically-altered arrangement of Bob Dylan's "The Time They Are A-Changin,'" which proved to be a challenge. With nary a chart or road map in sight, Shipp did an admirable job working his way through the tune with double caxixi shakers in hand(s), but his best work was yet to come; the Brazilian medley that ended the first set, and several second set numbers, found him in fine—and occasionally feisty—form.

McGarry's scat skills were given free rein on "Nobody Else But Me," which preceded a wonderful performance of singer-songwriter Paul Curreri's "Beneath A Crozet Trestle Bridge." Both songs found favor with the crowd, but neither number carried the emotional punch of "Desperado." McGarry carefully introduced this song by addressing the madness surrounding religious fundamentalism and extremism and though she never mentioned the Boston Marathon bombing(s), it was implicit in her remarks and, no doubt, on everybody's mind. A you-could-hear-a-pin drop vibe covered the room as McGarry and Ganz worked their way through this song. The brief ringing of a phone near song's-end briefly broke the spell they cast, but that distraction did nothing to diminish the tear-inducing power of the performance.

As the second set was due to start, McGarry and Ganz ceded the stage to Gian Slater and Christopher Hale, who delivered a spine-tingling three-song performance that left the crowd wanting more. This Australian duo turned plenty of heads and captured many-an-ear with their jazz-inflected, yet genre-blind approach to song craft. Slater, like McGarry, doesn't subscribe to a narrow definition of jazz singing and Hale, like Ganz, can support with a firm hand or color outside the lines.

McGarry and Ganz marked their return with "Man Of God," and went on to reference the highly lauded Girl Talk (Palmetto, 2012) with "We Kiss In A Shadow" and "Charade." Shipp's contributions to "Charade" took the song to new heights, as he wowed the crowd and melded beautifully with Ganz. In the hands of lesser men, a pandeiro and a pair of shakers are merely instrumental accoutrements, but Shipp creates an entire percussive universe with these small items.

Lighthearted tones took hold of the room as McGarry accidentally altered the lyrics of "Pennies From Heaven," momentarily turning it into a humor-filled call for bodily hygiene and cleansing, but composure came back around with "Plea For A Good Night's Rest." Other second set highlights included "The Second Time Around" and the set-ending "Ain't No Grave," but every number was truly top shelf in conception and execution.

Music, in its finest form(s), is about more than notes, rhythms and chords; it's about making a connection with people, and McGarry and Ganz have clearly mastered this art. The crowd at 55 Bar was fortunate enough to experience their magic on this very special night.

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