Kate McGarry, Ruth Brown
January 1, 1970Kate McGarry and Ruth Brown are the subjects of this week's Jazz Notes column and Calendar Jazz Pick, respectively. The week ahead in Boston/Cambridge will also include Esperanza Spalding and Patrice Williamson — making it an unsually strong one for female vocalists.
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She draws from many genres
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | July 15, 2005
Kate McGarry covers a lot of territory on her recent CD, "Mercy Streets," her second for Palmetto Records.
There's the Peter Gabriel tune "Mercy Street," from which the CD more or less takes its name. There are arty pop tunes by Joni Mitchell ("Chelsea Morning") and Björk ("Joga"). A handful of jazz standards. A Brazilian piece by McGarry favorite Toninho Horta. And original compositions by McGarry ("Going In"), her guitarist-husband, Keith Ganz ("Snow Picnic"), and the CD's guest pianist on two tracks, Fred Hersch (his own "Stars" and Björk's "Joga").
Genres and decades are intermingled, but it all holds together beautifully. McGarry, a Hyannis native whose performances at Scullers next Wednesday will be taped for later airing on National Public Radio's "JazzSet with Dee Dee Bridgewater," says that all of her work is built upon a solid jazz foundation.
"To me," she explains from the Tarrytown, N.Y., coach house she shares with Ganz, "if it has improvisational aspects and if it's interactive with the band, then it doesn't have to have a swing feel or whatever to be considered jazz — although I studied that for a long time and really draw a lot from it and feel like it's my main well."
McGarry was attracted to jazz early on. Teachers at Barnstable High School turned her on to pianists Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, and she regularly dropped by to see local piano great Dave McKenna perform at a Cape Cod restaurant.
"At the time, I didn't know anything," she recalls, laughing, "but I would go up and ask stuff like, 'Can you play Horace Silver's "Peace"?' He would just look at me like I was nuts. I didn't really understand about different people having different styles."
When it came time for college, McGarry headed to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. "In high school I found out that they had a jazz program there at UMass," she says. "And so I was like, 'That's it, that's what my future is going to be.' "
It took two decades for that dream to come to fruition. McGarry, now 42, graduated from UMass in 1985 and spent the next couple of years in Boston, followed by several years in Los Angeles. In 1996, she took a break from singing professionally, moving to an ashram in New York's Catskill Mountains to ponder whether she wanted to continue performing. By 1999, she'd decided the answer was yes. She moved to Manhattan and began hooking up with other downtown talent.
Hersch proved a particularly key connection, bringing her self-produced debut CD, "Show Me," to Palmetto Records and later having her sing the female part, alongside male lead Kurt Elling, on Hersch's musical interpretation of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass."
"There's a certain feeling that you get when you're playing with a peer," says Hersch. "Kate is a superb musician and has a very distinctive sound. She's a great improviser. She really cares deeply about the words that she sings. I think now that she's done her second record, 'Mercy Streets,' she's starting to come into her own."
Hersch likes McGarry's writing, too, even when it's not actually jazz. "Going In," concedes McGarry, is "an out-and-out singer-songwriter song. That has nothing to do with jazz, really, and I don't pretend that it does."
"I've always been accused of having a folkie sound," notes McGarry, "but at the same time having a lot of the foundational aspects of jazz. I kind of turn around and do both things, because they're both part of my upbringing and what went in when I was little. I was always listening to those guys — Joni Mitchell and Cat Stevens and James Taylor and stuff."
McGarry makes no apologies for widening the jazz palette to include latter-day folk and pop, though she does say she's considering doing a more straight-ahead jazz album next time out, backed by a piano trio. At Scullers, though, her band will have Ganz on acoustic guitar, Steve Cardenas on electric guitar, Sean Smith on bass, and Stephan Schatz on drums. And they'll be playing some of the genre-expanding tunes from "Mercy Streets."
"I think with any art form, it becomes relevant or becomes great or comes into being because people are doing stuff that's of the moment for them," she says. "Billie Holiday and Carmen McRae and Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald were responding to their circumstances and to their culture and to everything that was around them, and all the musicians that were around them, in coming up with what they did."
Berklee honors: The Berklee College of Music will present honorary doctorate of music degrees tomorrow to trumpeter Enrico Rava and pianists Hank Jones and McCoy Tyner in Perugia, Italy, as part of the 20th annual Berklee Summer School at Umbria Jazz Clinics.
Kate McGarry will perform at Scullers at 8 and 10 p.m. Wednesday. Tickets $15. Call 617-562-4111 or visit www.scullersjazz.com.
© Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company
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Calendar Jazz Picks
Regattabar, Charles Hotel, One Bennett St., Cambridge. 617-395-7757. 7:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. $25. Repeats Saturday.
Ruth Brown is the original queen of R&B. Atlantic Records was sometimes called "the house that Ruth built" for Brown's steady string of hit singles in the '40s and '50s. Stevie Wonder, in a cover blurb for Brown's autobiography, declared that were it not for Brown, "there wouldn't be no Aretha." But Brown is a jazz singer, too. She knew and performed alongside many of jazz's biggest names early on, and her lone Grammy award came in 1989 for best jazz vocal performance, courtesy of her album "Blues on Broadway." She's also a great blues belter, having earned Grammy nominations in the traditional blues category for her records "R&B = Ruth Brown" and "A Good Day for the Blues." All this Grammy interest came long after Brown, 77, recorded hits like "Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean," then disappeared from public view for more than a decade. She's had some tough times since her comeback, too, overcoming a stroke several years ago that temporarily robbed her of speech. But she's resumed singing splendidly and delights in hopping from one genre to the next. "It's all the same with her," jazz pianist Dick Hyman told me last year. "Soul, pop, real blues - it's all Ruth."
Wed 7-20 Kate McGarry Vocalist McGarry sings from her genre-blurring "Mercy Streets" in a set being taped by WGBH for later airing on National Public Radio. Scullers, DoubleTree Hotels Guest Suites Boston, 400 Soldiers Road, Boston. 617-562-4111. 8 and 10 p.m. $15, $55 with dinner.