What a difference a night makes when the well-seasoned duo of vocalist Kate McGarry and gonzo guitarist Keith Ganz travels from North Carolina to perform at the 1905 jazz club in Portland’s Mississippi neighborhood.
On Aug. 16, McGarry summoned the wit, stamina (boy, was it hot), and vocal skill to scat through Cole Porter’s “It’s De-Lovely,” opening with “What a Difference a Day Makes” and following with several other American Songbook favorites, including the semi-schmaltzy “We Kiss in the Shadow” from the mid-century Broadway blockbuster, The King and I. She also possessed the easy-going, comfortable-on-any stage, tongue-in-cheek humor to pull off Simon and Garfunkel’s 1966 “Feeling Groovy.” Remember that little tune way back when? “You move too fast, gotta make the morning last, kicking down the cobblestones, feeling groovy!” Whew! The way she and Ganz improvised the potentially corny and completely happy-go-lucky tune from the iconic Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme LP stood up just fine 57 years later.
McGarry can swerve you back into the old days, but she has the stage presence of a thoroughly modern crystal-clear-voiced singer to make you like just about anything she performs, including Bob Dylan’s oldie-forever-goldie, “The Times They are a-Changin’.” Sometimes, with her school-marm eye glasses, which she took off and put back on to read her notes and set list, her endearing smile and cheerful onstage banter, McGarry might seem like a very with-it aunt or sister (depending upon your age) – the kind you want to hang out with. But if you look at her website, you see her in sleek leather and black, so forget that affectionate auntie look.
In her voice, we heard a little Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, some Rickie Lee Jones, and I detected some Janis Joplin on her more bluesy pieces. She definitely did not grow up listening only to Beethoven and Brahms. Her radio dial was on the hip stations. And she loves to scat, something that many jazz vocalists avoid. “Lots of great jazz singers did not scat-sing,” she said in a post-show email interview. “Peggy Lee, Nancy Wilson and I do it. I enjoy it and I have an affinity for it. It’s a great way to express joy using jazz language and to increase interaction with musicians.”
She worked shades of Bill Evans, James Taylor and Jon Hendricks into her work, and there’s no doubt that she admires Cecile McLorin Salvant and Dianne Reeves. She sang Brazilian Luciana Souza’s “No Wonder,” and Souza is a fellow jazz star she knows well and has performed with, as has Ganz. Though each of these influences owns an utterly unique singing style, McGarry has her own distinctive voice that can swing soprano or scat alto, as well as her own unpretentious delivery and stage warmth – not that any more heat was welcome in the AC-less 1905 on that sultry mid-August night.
McGarry is good but she’s better than herself with 20-year husband and musical partner, impeccable guitarist Ganz, who plays both electric and acoustic guitars with what JazzTimes called “sublime subtlety”–and I’ll add utter concentration, with Pat Metheny and George Benson a couple of his models. Not only does he accompany and improvise with McGarry as if they’ve never spent a musical moment apart, but he arranges, produces, edits and shapes all of their recordings including their most recent, produced during Covid: What to Wear in the Dark, re-arrangements of tunes written by 1970s composers. “Here Comes the Sun,” “Feeling Groovy,” “Desperado” and other tunes will carry you backwards and forwards. Together McGarry and Ganz, both jazz teachers at various times in their careers, have produced seven well received albums. So it goes without saying that both have a razor-sharp grasp of every jazz rhythm in the book.
Their hour-long 1905 set featured about a dozen songs and a couple of add-ons. McGarry’s soulful composition, “Climb Down,” about her great-grandmother who immigrated from Ireland in 1875, was followed by the Irish folk piece, “Whiskey You’re the Devil.” Recalling the stories of her ancestor’s hard times, she joked about her own life from their point of view: “We’ve worked so hard, and you want to be a jazz singer?” With “Feeling Groovy,” she and Ganz added a rant about the jazz business, which came from Hal Galper’s 2001 book, The Touring Musician.
McGarry and Ganz, both of whom have been nominated for Grammys, and both of whom have performed with such high-profile jazz musicians as Theo Bleckman, Fred Hersch, Billy Childs, Maria Schneider, Kurt Elling and Gretchen Parlato (she’ll be singing Oct. 12 at The Old Church in Portland) know how to ceaselessly improvise, perform, support one another’s musicianship, and win over an audience. They do it artfully and generously. When they performed at the 5-year-old 1905, it had and has been under financial pressure. The intimate club, which holds about 50, recently initiated a Go Fund Me campaign, and as of Aug. 23, it had almost reached its $50,000 goal with 588 donations, many of them local jazzers who love performing there. Called “a real jazz club” by pianist/composer Billy Child during his spring gig, the club should have been packed for such accomplished musicians as McGarry and Ganz. Instead, the audience was thin, at least during the 9 pm second set. Let’s hope for a turnaround in attendance.