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Kate McGarry: Mercy Streets

C. Michael Bailey By

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Kate McGarry has become a conspicuous presence among jazz vocalists because of her effortless assimilation of several major jazz vocal styles into a single musical vision. In her singing, one can detect elements of Kurt Elling, Betty Carter, Joni Mitchell, Cassandra Wilson, and Norah Jones. In this respect, McGarry is pushing the boundaries of jazz vocals in a healthy and fundamental way.

The opening piece, "Chelsea Morning, a Joni Mitchell song, betrays an Elling influence in McGarry's progressive crescendo from one chorus to the next. She channels Mitchell's singing from the composer's Mingus period without coming across as a hallow imitation. "What Lola Wants shows that McGarry can sing Latin/gypsy with the best of them. The piece makes great use of Keith Ganz's guitar stylings and apptitude for fine arranging.

The most exciting piece on the record is "But Not For Me. Backed only by drummer Kenny Wolleson and bassist Sean Smith, the singer skips over the melodic stones placed in her path by the rhythm section. The three musicians approach the piece as if in different meters and from divergent directions. Smith provides a barely stable harmonic tether for the better part of the piece, before breaking into an interlude of aggressive 4/4. Wolleson brushes his way through the song while McGarry out-Carters Betty Carter. This is perfect jazz counterpoint, with blissfully little structure and an incandescent sense of music.

The title cut is by Peter Gabriel and again features guitarist Ganz. It has a pop sensibility a la Norah Jones, light and airy, drifting. The drums and percussion are mixed back giving the piece a spacious sound as does the slight reverb added to the singer's voice toward the end of the song. Pianist Fred Hersch shows up for two of the twelve songs, one of which is his own "Stars, allowing McGarry a standard ballad to prove she can play it straight in a beautiful contemporary setting.

The instrumentation should be noted. The vast majority of songs feature an acoustic and/or electric guitar trio. This lends an organicity to the music originally pioneered by Cassandra Wilson. But "Trouble in the World goes beyond Wilson. The instruments are well separated in the mix. The drums sound as if they could have been recorded at Nellcote with Exile on Main Street. Guitarists Ganz and Cardenas provide the same jazz counterpoint discussed above, again with the rhythm section barely keeping hold. This highwire act is executed to a stunning effect. Kate McGarry scores a big one with Mercy Streets, making this recording one of the most important vocal recordings of the year.


Track Listing: Chelsea Morning; Whatever Lola Wants; How Deep Is the Ocean; But Not for Me; Mercy Street; Joga (State of Emergency); Snow Picnic; Aquelas Coisas Todas; Stars; Trouble of the World; Going In; New Orleans

Personnel: Kate McGarry, vocals; Keith Ganz, guitars; Steve Cardenas, guitars; Sean Smith, bass; Kenny Wollesen, drums and percussion; Fred Hersch, piano on tracks 6,9

Title: Mercy Streets | Year Released: 2005 | Record Label: Palmetto Records

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