Kate McGarry, Singing Outside the Lines of Jazz Kate McGarry is an equal opportunity vocalist. On her new CD, she revamps jazz standards with hints of popular music, and infuses her natural jazz instincts into pop, folk and original compositions.

Kate McGarry, Singing Outside the Lines of Jazz

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Michele Norris.

And I'd like you to meet the jazz singer and songwriter Kate McGarry.

(Soundbite of song "The Meaning of the Blues")

Ms. KATE McGARRY (Jazz Singer, Songwriter): (Singing) I…

NORRIS: McGarry has a voice shaped by experience - time spent performing and studying music in Brazil, years teaching vocal lessons in an Upstate New York ashram, and a childhood in a big, loud Irish Catholic family that loved to sing Irish folk songs. But McGarry always comes back to jazz.

(Soundbite of song "The Meaning of the Blues")

Ms. McGARRY: (Singing) Blue was just the color of the sea. (Unintelligible) left me.

NORRIS: McGarry came in to chat with us about her latest CD called "The Target." She says her love of jazz may well go back to her parents' love for the swinging vocal sounds of The Mills Brothers.

Ms. McGARRY: We would listen to it just as we were doing stuff like cleaning up and everything. But then it was - the favorite time of it was when my parents would sing the music to us. So I would have heard it on the record, but then my dad would be singing, you know…

(Singing) I've got to buy a paper doll.

You know, stuff like that. And I want to just, you know, just crawl up on his lap and listen to it all day.

NORRIS: In The Mills Brothers, they had so much - the joy in that music was so obvious.

Ms. McGARRY: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: And I hear that joy in a particular song on the CD - the Betty Carter song, "Do Something."

Ms. McGARRY: "Do Something."

(Soundbite of song "Do Something")

Ms. McGARRY: (Singing) There's a moon, way up high. There are you, there are my do, do, do, do, do something. Ain't been hug, ain't been kiss, wanna see what I miss.

NORRIS: Remember the first time you heard the song?

Ms. McGARRY: I do remember it. Yeah. I mean, her version of it is just so smoking, you know. No one can compare that, but it's still so inspiring. I felt like it some point I really wanted to put it out myself.

(Soundbite of song, "Do Something")

Ms. McGARRY: (Singing) Got the time and the place. Can't you see on my face desire for making love compares…

NORRIS: It's sassy.

Ms. McGARRY: Yeah. And I love how the old-fashioned lyrics, you know, how they combine with contemporary. It's feels like that it's still relevant today. That's what I love about it. It feels like it - you're using words from the old days.

NORRIS: There is a song on the CD, "The Heather on the Hill" that goes back to your roots.

Ms. McGARRY: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: And the Irish folk songs that I imagine that your family would sing -big family, yes?

Ms. McGARRY: Yes. Really big. Yeah. There were 10 of us.

NORRIS: How big? Ten.

Ms. McGARRY: Yeah. We loved singing the old Irish songs. And this song is actually Scottish in origin, and it's from "Brigadoon." But I heard it 15 years ago and it just - it felt like I was back in the Irish pub singing with my family again. And so I really felt like I wanted to do that.

NORRIS: Let's listen.

(Soundbite of song, "The Heather on the Hill")

Ms. McGARRY: (Singing) Can't we two go walkin' together, out beyond the valley of trees? Out where there's a hillside of heather, curtsyin' gently in the breeze.

NORRIS: As we listen, we can almost see that heather curtsying.

Ms. McGARRY: I was singing it.


Ms. McGARRY: When there was singing.

NORRIS: I understand that when you include Irish music in your live sets, you get a very interesting reaction from the audience.

Ms. McGARRY: Usually, people feel or tell me that they feel like they're going back to their childhood in some way. That's what it usually brings up. Or a feeling of sadness that they connect with maybe - longing. And that it was for me. It's a combination of something just poignant. It's sweet, but it's also sad.

(Soundbite of song, "The Heather on the Hill")

Ms. McGARRY: (Singing) So take my hand and let's go wanderin' through the heather on the hill.

NORRIS: It seems like your band members, particularly your husband, understand the power of these kinds of songs on an audience. There's a story I'm hoping that you're going to share with us, where your husband was playing a jazz set at a hotel lounge - and as is often the case in these kinds of lounges - people just weren't paying attention, he called you on the cell phone.

Ms. McGARRY: Oh, that's right. They asked for an Irish song and it was noisy in the room. And he called me, and I was at home. And I just started to sing "Peggy Gordon" and it did feel like I was going across the oceans, you know. It was just maybe a half and hour away, but it felt like I was traveling a great distance.

NORRIS: So, what, he calls you on your cell phone.

Ms. McGARRY: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: You start singing "Peggy Gordon." He holds the cell phone up to the microphone?

Ms. McGARRY: Yes. Yeah. And the audience just heard it as though I was singing from Ireland, I guess, you know. That's what it felt like to them. I could feel it, over on my end, too. You could feel the presence of a lot of people who were just kind of holding their breath with me. And it was very strong. I think that's really why I do it.

NORRIS: And I'm sorry to put on the spot here, but just in case there's someone out there who's wondering, what does "Peggy Gordon" sound like. A few bars?

Ms. McGARRY: Sure.

(Soundbite of song, "Peggy Gordon")

Ms. McGARRY: (Singing) O Peggy Gordon, you are my darling. Come sit you down upon my knee. And tell to me the very reason why I am slighted so by thee.

NORRIS: Kate, you are described most often as a jazz singer, but it seems like you're rather hard to pin down.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. McGARRY: That's true, I mean, I love jazz music and I've had different times in my life where I've focus really strongly on different genres. So I look at it like there's a well inside and I'm just putting different things in that well and then they're going to come out later.

(Soundbite of song, "No Wonder")

Ms. McGARRY: (Singing) Heh, heh, heh…

NORRIS: The song "No Wonder…"

Ms. McGARRY: Mm-hmm.

NORRIS: …has this wonderful Brazilian phrasing in it.

(Soundbite of song, "No Wonder")

Ms. McGARRY: (Singing) Don't look back, you move so well within your space. I despair your vacant looks. Don't prove a thing. I wish I knew the bottom of your heart could sing.

That's a composition and an arrangement by Luciana Souza, and she's been a great friend and teacher. Of course, the challenges after she's done that so beautifully - it's to take the song and see what does it mean to me and how can I reinterpret it in a way that So I was really happy with it.

(Soundbite of song, "No Wonder")

Ms. McGARRY: (Singing) Have you got a heart? What's in it?

NORRIS: You're often described as a jazz artist, who has the potential to capture tomorrow's jazz fans. Is this a sample of that?

Ms. McGARRY: I think so. When I hear people say, oh, I don't like jazz. I'm always - I always just felt like, sit for a second, let me play something on you. And especially younger people who might have been exposed to it. And I think that's an issue in our country, that we don't, you know, play the music for the younger people anymore. So it's a great thing to be able to reawaken them to and let them know that it's not something old or - it's now, you know.

NORRIS: Kate, thank you so much for speaking with us. It's been a lot of fun.

Ms. McGARRY: Thanks, Michele.

(Soundbite of song, "No Wonder")

Ms. McGARRY: (Singing) I can scream it.

NORRIS: Kate McGarry's new CD is called "The Target." You can hear more selections from it and find more music at npr.org/music.

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