Friday, January 31, 2014

Hearts & Soul (Part 1)

Over the past decade, vocalist Kate McGarry has issued 5 CDs on Palmetto Records that straddle the lines between jazz, pop and folk. She has done so with a clear voice, avoiding vocal tricks and cliches, making sure the listener hears the lyrics and melody.  On her most recent CD, "Girl Talk", she paid tribute to her influences ("role models", she calls singers such as Betty Carter, Sheila Jordan and others) without imitating any of them.

2014 finds Ms. McGarry moving to Sunnyside Records and releasing "Genevieve and Ferdinand", a mostly "live" recording on which she shares the billing and stage with her husband, guitarist Keith Ganz.   Over the course of 11 tracks, the duo mix heartfelt originals with intelligent arrangements of songs by Paul Simon ("An American Tune"), James Taylor ("Line "Em Up"), Tonino Horta ("Aquelas Coisas Todas/Third Wind/Aqui O"), Irving Berlin ("Let's Face The Music and Dance") and the team of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein ("Can't Help Lovin' That Man", from "Showboat").  Theo Bleckmann and Australian vocalist Gian Slater join the duo on a haunting rendition of Todd Rundgren's "Pretending to Care." Through it all, Mr. Ganz keeps the rhythm moving and offers quiet yet intelligent backing.  One hears the folk stylings of Bert Jansch in his finger-picking on the guitarist's original "Mr. Long Gones" while finely-articulated notes shimmer like starlight on "Beneath a Crozet Trestle Bridge" (from the pen of Virginia-based singer-songwriter Paul Curreri.) 

The immediacy of the recording (mostly recorded in concert at Soundpure Studios in Durham, North Carolina) makes the listener as if he is seated at the front table. There is an intimacy to the songs, a gentleness and wistfulness that transcends labels.  The CD takes its name from Ms. McGarry's middle name and her belief that her husband is, in her words like "the peaceful bull from that old children's book who only wants to sit under a tree and smell the flowers while the other bulls are fighting". "Genevieve and Ferdinand", Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz, whatever names they chose to be called, make music that is warm like a mug of mint tea on a winter day and cool like a spring breeze.  For more information, go to 

Such a joy to discover a vocalist who makes a recording that knocks you back in your chair.  Zara McFarlane, born to a Jamaican family living in a suburb of London, England.  She has studied Broadway musicals, sung in a ska orchestra, made "house music", worked with jazz orchestras and toured with British artists such as Soweto Kinch and Denys Baptiste.

That written, her sophomore release, "If You Knew Her" (Brownwood Records), will surprise you with its maturity and risk-taking.  She writes that her debut CD "Until Tomorrow" used the same lineup all the way through "to create a cohesive sound."   For the new recording, the focus is on the compositions and uses different musicians on almost every track.  Manu Delago's hang drum is the first sound one hears on "Open Heart" (the hang - pronounced "hung" - sounds, at times, like a high-pitched steel drum) and leads the listener into a soulful vocal. Ms. McFarlane's voice is rich and clear; she overdubs harmonies that work with Gavin Barras' bowed acoustic bass lines to fill out the sound.  Her rendition of "Police and Thieves", the classic reggae tune composed and recorded by Junior Murvin and Lee "Scratch" Perry, is quite dramatic. Built off the solid acoustic bass lines of Max Luthert (a member of the British trio Partikel), the track features a forthright vocal (not unlike Abbey Lincoln on "We Insist! Freedom Now Suite") and a strong tenor sax solo from Binker Golding, a member of Ms. McFarlane's Quintet. The vocalist also covers "Plain Gold Ring", a song Nina Simone recorded on her splendid debut Lp "Little Girl Blue."  With just Luthert's simple bass figures, hand percussion (supplied by the vocalist) and vocal overdubs, the song is emotionally rich that suggests at Ms. Simone's husky delivery but stands out as a creative remix.

Trumpeter/vocalist Leron Thomas joins Ms. McFarlane on the jazzy remake of Jamaican singer Nora Dean's "Angie La La" which also features the strong bass work of Gavin Barras and swinging drum work of Luke Flowers (of The Cinematic Orchestra) - this take suggests the work of the late Leon Thomas (no relation to the trumpeter) in the open chords, the trance-like rhythms and the often ethereal vocals.

The original composition "The Games We Played" suggest an African connection in the lyrics, with just the sweet vocal and the gentle piano of Peter Edwards (who appeared on her debut CD and whose Trio features bassist Luthert).  That leads into "Woman In The Olive Groove", a harder-edged piece with powerful chords from Edwards and a fiery tenor solo from Golding.  Edwards also appears on the final track, "Love", accompanying the vocalist with unembellished chords (though he has several short solos featuring rippling phrases) - Ms. McFarlane's vocal suggests a sweetness and maturity, a generosity of spirit and lack of ego that gives the piece (and, for that fact, the entire album) its honesty.

Honesty, creativity, spirit, all good (if somewhat inadequate) words to describe "If You Knew Her."  You should get to know Zara McFarlane as she is a young vocalist/composer who does not cover her voice with extraneous sounds (although some of the remixes on the Brownwood web site get pretty noisy) and her songs cut through the crap of everyday life with a firm but compassionate heart. For more information, go to  

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