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

Dr. Judith Schlesinger By

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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.

KM: Keith wrote that when we were driving to a gig. I asked him, "Can you write me an arrangement for Lola? He just heard these interlocking parts, and he wrote it while he was sitting there, without even checking it on anything. He wrote it down, and it's perfect—you feel like you're out there sliding on the flamenco floor.

AAJ: So when you double, it's mostly him first?

KM: I just learn it from listening to it, on those arrangements which are his, like "The Lamp is Low. On "Aquelas Coisas Todas [on Mercy Streets], [guitarist] Steve Cardenas and Keith and I just sat in a room and soloed over the song. We took eight bars of each person's solo and put them together.

AAJ: It's such a great band. You just got back from a European tour, yes?

KM: Yes, and we're going to Europe again. We've been asked back, and this time someone else will book it.

AAJ: Got a manager now?

KM: No—a booking agent in Europe, which is nice. The hope is to try to have this become sustainable: something that doesn't take out of you more than it gives to you. Right now, we're trying to get over the hump of achieving recognition and selling CDs. We were the most-added jazz album throughout the country—we came in at 37 on the chart. That was nice, although it was Jazz Week, not the Billboard chart.

AAJ: But it does go higher than 38...?

KM: Yes, it starts at 50. We entered at 37 with one week out. We'll see what happens. Hopefully we'll get up there. And we were also the most-added to the CMJ or college chart.

AAJ: There are lots of crossover possibilities here. If you pull the songs off it, you can almost have several totally different records.

KM: I know. Isn't it wild? I have people saying "pick, pick, pick what you want to do. Get in a can! I've given up—I'm not gonna do it!

AAJ: Don't! One of the nice things about Tower Records going bankrupt is that you no longer have to worry about fitting in a bin. Some artists are simply unbinnable. And now to the bonus question: anything you'd like to say about anything?

KM: I would like to say... I had a moment yesterday where I was really feeling a lot of pressure because the bassist e-mailed from Japan and said "My plane's not getting back until late in the afternoon the day of the show so we can't do the rehearsal and blahblah... These things are always happening—it always feels like crisis potential—and Keith and I look at each other and say, "Do we need this? We don't know if it's worth it—all the angst I had about trying to make things work out right, having to do more and more —oh, it's not worth it if I'm going to be like that.

AAJ: Not if you're going to lose stomach lining over it.

KM: No. But right then, everything gets down to its most practical. It becomes: OK, that means we just do the rehearsal the day of the show. Take charge, and it's done. Set it down. I think that what you need comes through the process of doing something that's really difficult: how else am I gonna get that, unless I go through something this hard?

AAJ: So we're back to paradox: you have to do the difficult to get to the easy.

KM: Yeah. And whether or not I'm able to sell a lot of records, I want to have access to what I want to do musically. I'd like to record and have people make the money back, but I also want to play wherever I want, and be asked to collaborate. That's what I would like to have happen.

AAJ: Your work with Fred Hersch has been wonderful—the Leaves of Grass concert and tour and CD, and the recent Lincoln Center gig called The Songs of Fred Hersch. You've also collaborated with [composer/arranger/bandleader] Maria Schneider and the Jazz Tap Ensemble. Then I heard you sang with [pianist] Chick Corea...?

KM: They just put it up on my website. It was 2001 and Chick's 60th birthday celebration at The Blue Note [in New York], and I was sitting right in front. Chick and Bobby McFerrin came out and did the most amazing set that was so beautiful, and the last song was "Smile. Bobby's got the lyrics in his hand, but he's not singing them—just "doo-doo-doo, and Chick was playing it, and they were filming the whole thing. And Bobby does one chorus wordlessly, then looks around and says "Anybody know this song? He didn't know me from Adam. And my hand shot up—it was a huge yes. I'd never actually sung the song before, but everybody knows "Smile.

So I just started to sing it, and he sat and let me sing the whole song. And then they continued. They liked it so much, they left it in the DVD. And that part keeps playing on BET all the time. They sent me the clip; it's now on YouTube too. It's such a sweet, sweet moment.

AAJ: And there's more of that in your future, I bet.

KM: That night I felt "This is how things can be if you allow it '—saying yes, yes, yes. Always saying yes.

Selected Discography

Kate McGarry, The Target (Palmetto, 2007)
Kate McGarry, Mercy Streets (Palmetto, 2005)
Fred Hersch, Leaves of Grass (Palmetto, 2005)
Solar, Suns of Cosmic Consciousness (Aztac, 2005)

Kate McGarry, Show Me (Palmetto, 2003)

Photo Credit
Mena Kehoe

About Kate McGarry
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