Thursday, March 22, 2012

Dears, I Surrender

We are barely 3 full months into 2012 and I continue to be amazed by the number of excellent new recordings, especially those by female vocalists.  And, as has been exclaimed and written many times before "The hits just keep on coming." 

Kate McGarry does not rush through projects.  "Girl Talk" (Palmetto Records) comes nearly 4 years after her previous CD, "If Less Is More...Nothing Is Everything" but it's not like she's been lazing on a beach somewhere. She and her husband, guitarist-producer Keith Ganz, have moved to North Carolina, dealt with personal issues, toured a lot and been teaching.  She's also worked with John Hollenbeck's Large Ensemble, toured and recorded with the vocal ensemble MOSS, and done much more.

For her 6th CD, Ms. McGarry and her husband decided to perform a group of standards, work with a fine band (Gary Versace on piano and organ, Reuben Rogers on bass and Clarence Penn on drums and percussion) and see what would happen.  There's a sweet sense of playfulness on tracks such as as the Neal Hefti/Bobby Troup song that gives the program its title.  Ganz's chunky and chirpy guitar riffs move the piece forward while Versace's organ purrs below; the lyrics are definitely pre-"feminism" but the groove is delectable and Ms. McGarry is having such fun.  The short scat section and the antic pace points to the Art Tatum version.  Henry Mancini's "Charade" comes on like a "bolero", Ganz's crackling guitar rising above the subtly swing rhythm section.

The ensemble really shines on the opening cut, Rodgers & Hammerstein's "We Kiss In the Shadow" (from "The King & I").  Versace's expressive piano work above the splashing cymbals and propulsive bass line is a highlight.  The emotional lift of the vocal (and the over-dubbed harmony lines) bring to mind Ms. McGarry's work with Fred Hersch and MOSS.  Dori Caymmi and Nelson Motta's lovely "O Cantador" features Kurt Elling - his excellent harmony work and his handsome baritone vocal blends well with Ms. McGarry's emotionally rich lines.  Ganz's fine acoustic solo (with Elling's wordless vocal providing lovely background) leads into the final verse, a finish that is intense and free-flowing (their Portuguese enunciation is also really impressive.)

Other highlights include Harry Warren & Arthur Freed's swinging "This Heart of Mine", originally recorded in 1946 by Fred Astaire.  Ms. McGarry displays excellent jazz "chops", playfully dancing over the flowing rhythms (a bit of Sarah Vaughan creeps into her voice near the end).  She rips right through "I Know That You Know" with Penn's dancing drums driving the music. It certainly sounds like everyone is having fun. "Looking Back", written and recorded by Jimmy Rowles, is quite a lovely piece, the melody line supported by the folk-like electric guitar and subtle bass patterns. Ganz switches to acoustic guitar for his fine solo and it's a fine counterpoint to the vocal, which sounds influenced by Old English ballads.

"Girl Talk" is smart, sassy, classy and, emotionally strong.  Adult music that is not afraid to swing and take chances or slow down and caress the melody, this is, arguably, Kate McGarry's finest recording.  Release date is April 10 but go to for more information and to listen to this music.

For her 4th CD, Melissa Stylianou has assembled a fascinating collection of songs from various sources, ranging from originals to contemporary singer-songwriters (such as Joanna Newsom, Paul Simon and James Taylor) as well as "classic" songs from Henry Mancini, Jerome Kern & Oscar Hammerstein and Johnny Cash. "Silent Movie" (Anzic Records) is best described by its creator as "a collection of small stories, everyday life caught in a series of moving frames."  And what a fine storyteller Ms. Stylianou is.

The opening track, Charlie Chaplin's classic melody "Smile", is flat-out gorgeous.  No frills, no vocal acrobatics or fancy solos, just the wisdom of the lyrics (composed by John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons).  The quartet that supports the vocalist - pianist Jamie Reynolds, guitarist Pete McCann, bassist Gary Wang, and drummer Rodney Green - makes all the right moves, whether it's the pianist beneath the vocals or the whisper-soft percussion.  Ms. Stylianou does not "sell" the song, she sings it.  The joy she exudes on Taylor's "Something In the Way She Moves" is honest; it makes me smile. Her take on Paul Simon's "Hearts and Bones" (aided by Anat Cohen's emotionally rich soprano saxophone) is gentle yet with an intensity that helps to illuminate the composer's story of a failed marriage. Ms. Cohen's bluesy clarinet winds around the vocal lines on "Folks Who Live on the Hill", the Kern-Hammerstein tune from the 1937 film "High, Wide, and Lonesome" and popularized in the 1950s by Peggy Lee.  The subtle humor of the piece is transmitted by Ms. Stylianou's happy not sappy vocal.  The combination of Green's propulsive drumming and James Shipp's percussion is also quite splendid.  Green's work on "I Still Miss Someone" (credit for the arrangement goes to Paul Mathew) helps to reinvent the Johnny Cash song, underscoring the plaintive vocal.   McCann's guitar work is exquisite, understated and elegant.  He channels Robert Johnson and Chet Atkins on "Today I Sing The Blues", first recorded in 1948 by Helen Humes and in 1960 by Aretha Franklin (during her Columbia Records days.) There's a blues and country-folk feel to Joanna Newsom's "Swansea", the acoustic piano and Ms. Cohen's bass clarinet creating a quiet shower of notes behind the vocal.

Ms. Stylianou adds lyrics to compositions by pianist Reynolds (the title track), Vince Mendoza (the haunting "Hearing Your Voice"), and bassist Edgar Meyers (the tender, touching, ballad "First Impressions" which features lovely cello from Yoed Nir and a fine bass solo from Wang.) Like the other pieces on the disk, these lyrics tell stories of relationships that most, if not all, listeners can relate to. 

"Moon River" closes the program. A piece as oft-recorded as the opening "Smile", here it's just Ms. Stylianou and Reynold's Erik Satie-like piano accompaniment moving simply through Johnny Mercer's simple but timeless lyrics. After they complete their 2 verses and choruses, a music box playing the same melody takes the CD out.

Quiet music does not always make for good listening but "Silent Movie" glows with intelligence and love of melody.  Melissa Stylianou is not a "decorative" singer; she does have a lovely voice with a good range, fine enunciation and a refreshing lack of artifice.  The band is super, the arrangements appealing and the sound excellent. For more information, go to

Here's a track from the CD, courtesy of Anzic Records and the Anzic Store:


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