She has a bachelor’s degree in African-American music and jazz from the University of Massachusetts. And besides straight-ahead jazz (Thelonious Monk, for example), her finely detailed, feather-and-steel voice in the alto-soprano range can skillfully wrap around Irish ballads, show tunes, spirituals, swing, a Kinks or Joni Mitchell number, and even Brazilian songs in Portuguese.
Intrigued? So was Palmetto Records, a record label rated behind only Blue Note, ECM, and Verve as the best in jazz, according to the 51st annual critics’ poll in Downbeat magazine this past August. Devoted to innovative instrumentalists (pianists Fred Hersch and Andrew Hill, drummer Matt Wilson, bassist Ben Allison, saxophonist Ted Nash, trumpeter Ray Vega), Palmetto relented when its president, guitarist Matt Balitsaris, and its executive vice-president/general manager, Pat Rustici, finally heard Kate McGarry sing at the Cutting Room in Manhattan.
“It happened in a roundabout way,” McGarry said over the phone from her apartment not far from the Cloisters on New York’s Upper West Side. “In June 2001, I put out a record on my own, ‘Show Me,’ and my manager, Jill Azzolina, sent it to Fred Hersch for a listen. He thought it had merit and passed it on to Palmetto, which he had just signed with. Pat Rustici heard it and liked it, then got Matt Balitsaris to join him for my performance at the Cutting Room.”
McGarry’s Palmetto album is also entitled “Show Me,” since it’s essentially the same CD she made and released two years ago on her own.
“I didn’t have any distribution back then, so I brought the album to Tower Records myself,” she said. “I used to do everything by myself before, and now I’m getting this great support from Palmetto. I’m in heaven.”
So are jazz buffs. The title track, a classic from Lerner and Lowe’s “My Fair Lady,” turns what was frustration-bursting defiance in the show to willowy, whispery longing in a voice that rises, falls, and pauses with subtle daring. McGarry also puts her distinctive stylistic stamp on a 1937 standard, “Gypsy in My Soul,” that at one point slips into almost R&B mode; coils her smoky timbre around the loved-and-lost “The Thrill Is Gone,” and breaks into scat passages sparking off Scott Colley’s bass during “East of the Sun” and Cole Porter’s “Get Out of Town.”
The 10 songs of “Show Me” reveal a poised, skilled singer unafraid of following her own musical instincts or bending convention. But that wasn’t always the case.
In the late 1980s at California’s Monterey Jazz Festival, McGarry was invited to be a guest vocalist with an all-star quartet led by two jazz lions, pianist Hank Jones and trumpeter Clark Terry. It began inauspiciously for her when, 30 seconds before taking the stage, the clasp broke on the back of the vintage dress she was wearing.
“The guys in the band were shouting, ‘We need a pin! We need a pin!’ ” McGarry recalled. “We hadn’t rehearsed, either, so I went out cold. I sang an uptempo song, which went OK, but then Hank went into a ballad where we were in the right key but the tempo threw me. I was 24 years old and green, and it showed. It wasn’t a disaster outwardly, but it was a disaster for me inwardly.”
After that, McGarry took a year or so off from performing. In 1996 she left Los Angeles, to which she had moved in 1987, and relocated to the East, where she spent her time on an ashram in South Fallsburg in New York’s Catskill Mountains.
“I had been pursuing this spiritual path since college,” she said, “and I thought it was a good time to explore this part of my life. Right before going to the ashram, I had this notion in my head that pursuing music was selfish and that maybe I should be doing service. I guess it was the old Catholic guilt kicking in. But then on the ashram I eventually realized that doing music is my service.”
In late 1998, McGarry moved to New York City to take up her dream of performing once more. “Even though I had made my first album [‘Easy to Love’ in 1992] out in L.A., I wanted to wait this time until I reached a level of music where I was completely comfortable. I felt I was ready.”
That readiness evolved over time and was achieved through a mix of familial support, happenstance, unhappy ruts, and sheer determination.
“My mom told me that when I was 15 months old, I was singing ‘Hello, Dolly,’ ” McGarry said. “I knew the words even though I couldn’t pronounce them. My mom knew I loved music, and when I was 11 years old, she’d take me in the middle of the week to hear this singer from Galway, Gerry Mulholland, in an Irish pub that just opened on Cape Cod. I drank Shirley Temples and watched and listened.”
Formal lessons on piano and organ combined with further encouragement from her parents and instructors to give McGarry a firm grounding in the music that became her passion.
“From a high-school music teacher I got an Ella Fitzgerald record and a Bill Evans solo record called ‘Alone,’ ” she said. “When I was a senior in high school, I also listened to Keith Jarrett’s ‘My Song’ album over and over again. It was this interactive, far-reaching style that was all in the cracks of the chords and harmonic structure, and it kept unraveling. I loved it.”
Recipient of a Cape Cod Jazz Society Scholarship ($500), McGarry enrolled in 1981 at the University of Massachusetts, where she studied sacred music with Dr. Horace Boyer and jazz with avant-garde saxophonist, composer, and playwright Archie Shepp. Her first encounter with Shepp came in the lobby of her dormitory.
“He was teaching some students from a grand piano and playing all these old, discarded tunes with wild chords,” McGarry recalled. “I told him I sang, and he asked what I knew. I said, ‘God Bless the Child.’ So we played it for something like two hours. First thing he told me: ‘Get rid of that vibrato. You don’t need all that wiggly stuff.’ “
From Dr. Boyer, McGarry learned that gospel, other spirituals, blues, and jazz weren’t the exclusive province of the black singers she admired, such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday, Jon Hendricks, and Mahalia Jackson. “He gave me the belief that the music was mine as well,” she said.
After college, McGarry toured with One O’Clock Jump, a Boston-area trio whom she described as an “Andrews Sisters knockoff, except I was the only woman in it.” The limited, repetitious repertoire and bits of stage shtick, however, wore thin after about a year. “I think even my body rebelled because I developed nodes in my vocal cords,” she said. “Still, it was a good learning experience for me, and what it really was good for was showing me what I did not want to do.”
Today there’s little music that adventurous Kate McGarry won’t try. “I think if I can do a song authentically and well, no matter what it is, then I should be allowed to do it,” she said. “I still sing ‘Peggy Gordon,’ and I’m working on an arrangement of a Bjork song.”
Her eclecticism also encompasses such Brazilian songs as “Aqui O” and “Oceano,” which she sings in Portuguese on her Palmetto CD. “I’ve been taking lessons in the language for years, and I love the music of Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Milton Nascimento, and especially Toninho Horta,” she said, naming just a few of the Brazilian singers and composers she enjoys.
McGarry is starting to compose songs as well, and ending her Palmetto album is “One Eye Laughs, One Eye Weeps,” a haunting, questioning song with her words set to the melody of late friend and bassist Eric Von Essen. “His death in ’97 really affected me,” she said. “Eric was living in Finland and sent this tune to me with a little handwritten note in the margin: ‘lyric potential?’ He approved what I wrote.”
Approval also came to McGarry again when her parents and some other family members traveled to Manhattan to see her perform at the Jazz Standard last January. “They have always been behind me and beside me,” McGarry said. “When they saw me sing there, they said, ‘Oh, so this is what you’re doing.’ “
With guitarist Steve Cardenas, organist Gary Versace, and drummer Billy Kilson backing her, Kate McGarry will once more be singing at the Jazz Standard, a downstairs club at 116 E. 27th St., in a “Show Me” CD release concert sponsored by Palmetto Records on Oct. 7 and 8. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 each night. Reservations, 212-576-2232.