The Inspiring Sounds of Jazz Singer Kate McGarry

August 7, 2016 Updated: August 8, 2016

Kate McGarry may have moved from New York to North Carolina but she began her set at Jazz Standard with a lithe rendition of the New York-themed “59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” by Paul Simon. She prefaced this with a reading of a piece about the music business by jazz pianist Hal Galper. It was not a conventional beginning for a jazz show but McGarry is not a typical jazz artist.

The Grammy-nominated singer (for best jazz vocal CD) was named this year the #1 Rising Star Female Vocalist by Downbeat Magazine. Her backup group is called What to Wear in the Dark. It is led by her husband, guitarist Keith Ganz, with Sean Smith on bass, and Allison Miller on drums.

Kate McGarry
Kate McGarry (Matteo Trisolini)

McGarry is known for her eclectic choice of material and the set at Jazz Standard was no exception. She sang “Secret Love” (the Academy Award song from “Calamity Jane” by Sammy Fain and Paul Francis Webster). McGarry scatted a little, something Doris Day didn’t do in the 1953 film, and Smith contributed a bass solo.

McGarry then reached back into an earlier period with a Bing Crosby hit from the 1936 movie, “Pennies from Heaven” (by Arthur Johnson and Johnny Burke). She swung gently and engaged in a musical dialogue with each of the musicians. Miller’s drum work is always subtle, never threatening to overwhelm McGarry’s vocals.

The instrumental trio took over for Thelonious Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” and even managed to find something new in one of the most frequently performed tunes in jazz.

McGarry is a thoughtful songwriter and performed a piece she wrote, “Climb Down,” about her Irish ancestors. In the course of the song, she acknowledges her forebears’ troubled history and invites them to see all the changes that have taken place since their time. From this, she segued into an Irish folk tune. As Ganz demonstrated throughout the set, his guitar work is a perfect accompaniment, whether in a jazz or folk vein.  

“God Moves on the City” by Paul Curreri has a folky blues feeling, which fits the lyrics about dislocation. Several stanzas end with the line about going home: “But my key won’t fit. Look at my home; my home looks different.”

McGarry is known for her eclectic choice of material.

McGarry and the group ended the set with James Shipp’s arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s haunting “Anthem.” The words urge the listener to “Forget your perfect offering/There is a crack in everything/That’s how the light gets in.”

The singer explained that the name of her band, What to Wear in the Dark, refers to the fact that music has helped her get through some tough periods in her life. Her fresh approach to works from the past or from contemporary songwriters certainly lifted the spirits of all in attendance.

Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.