Kate McGarry is the best jazz singer you haven’t heard of.
Kate McGarry is the best jazz singer you haven’t heard of, and her new recording, The Subject Tonight is Love, is a subtle beauty, an essay about that feeling we chase. It is an intimate recording that crosses genres with ease, mixing jazz standards and other kinds of songs so that the difference doesn’t matter. Because, of course, it doesn’t.
McGarry has never had her moment in the spotlight: a token moment on the Grammys or a major label contract or a feature moment at Jazz at Lincoln Center. But in smaller ways her maturity as an artist is increasingly clear. Her 2007 album The Target on Palmetto earned her a feature on NPR’s All Things Considered, and recent collaborations with other artists attest to her prominence. She made a stunning appearance on John Hollenbeck’s Songs I Like a Lot from 2013 alongside singer Theo Bleckmann, turning heads with her take on two Jimmy Webb songs. She also worked recently with pianist Fred Hersch on a project putting Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” to music. There, she was paired with singer Kurt Elling, about as superb a jazz singer as the new millennium has seen. And that project will be featured at Lincoln Center in 2018.
But her own projects are just as worthy of attention. The Subject Tonight is Love could hardly be better. McGarry works with guitarist Keith Ganz (her husband), and versatile keyboardist Gary Versace, who uses piano, electric piano, accordion and organ to color ingenious new arrangements of familiar songs and less familiar songs that suddenly strike home on the strength of great interpretation.
The standards here glow with a fresh coat of paint. “My Funny Valentine” is gently caressed by a spare web of electric piano and guitar playing a Ganz arrangement that reshuffles the song’s familiar minor harmonies with the touch of a great pastry chef. Sammy Fain’s “Secret Love” is given a dancing treatment that allows acoustic guitar and piano to hop around a fairly grooving bass line. When McGarry reaches up for the high notes on the bridge (“I shouted from the highest hill/ I even told the golden daffodil”) she sounds playfully naive and hopeful in a way that you dream of being again someday. “Gone with the Wind” receives the album’s most overtly swinging treatment, with Ganz on acoustic bass guitar and Versace playing a fluid acoustic piano solo. When McGarry returns on the theme, she is every bit an expert improviser, tossing ideas back and forth with the piano on a playful out-chorus.
The heart of the recording, however, is the path of eclecticism that the band paves through other material. “Climb Down” is a brooding McGarry original that addresses the dark side of family love, with Ganz playing slide blues guitar and Versace using his B3 to create shimmering swells and to play a piercing, eerie solo. When that track eases into a traditional Irish tune for just voice and drum, the sense of family and heritage is given extra resonance. “Losing Strategy,” another original, assays the state of broken love, as the narrator turns away from revenge to the accompaniment of Versace’s accordion. “She Always Will” puts McGarry’s lyrics to a Steve Cardenas melody, looking at the love a mother feels over a throbbing piano part. “Every child I never had/ Is laughing, playing, waiting for me.” Potent stuff.
More purely delightful is the band’s version of “What a Difference a Day Made,” which they play not as an R&B anthem but as a light samba, a swaying piece of joy. The carefree approach to “Indian Summer” is similarly smile-inducing: a casual letting go of a dream. McGarry’s vocal approach—here as everywhere—is plainspoken and subtle. She never oversings a tune, never adds too much vibrato or flashy melisma. But that sincere, slightly tossed-off quality means that her moments of truth hit particularly hard and clear. The same goes for the musicianship. “Indian Summer” contains a section in which Versace and Ganz play a guitar/piano counterpoint dialogue that is so effortlessly brilliant that you are less dazzled that just breath-robbed.
By the end of The Subject Tonight is Love, your ears are in love with Kate McGarry. Her combination of purring honesty and bell-toned emotion is not intoxicating but, better, it’s clear-eyed and true. Her voice and artistry—and that of Keith Ganz and Gary Versace—eschews love song heat for the cool that you feel when you reflect on real love, complicated love. Calling it “mature” makes it sound boring. No, it’s not boring. It is glowing like a bed of simmering coals rather than raging like an inferno. It warms you just the right way.