Jazz CD Review: Kate McGarry’s “The Subject Tonight Is Love”

Kate McGarry’s latest release is a gorgeous seminar on the many facets of love.

Kate McGarry, Keith Ganz, Gary Versace, The Subject Tonight Is Love (Binxtown Records)

By Evelyn Rosenthal

Today the subject is the enchanting Kate McGarry, a singer perhaps not as widely known as some of her fellow Grammy-nominated jazz vocalists, but whose critically acclaimed albums and performances place her at the top of her field. In six previous releases, McGarry has brought her signature warmth and intelligence to music that’s meant the most to her, from folk classics to show tunes, jazz standards and the music of Brazil, as well as her own affecting originals.

McGarry’s latest release, The Subject Tonight Is Love, is a gorgeous seminar on the many facets of love. She’s joined by two musicians known for their exquisite sensitivity in working with vocalists—something not always easy to find in the jazz world. Guitarist Keith Ganz, McGarry’s husband and musical partner, has been on all of her recordings since 2005’s Mercy Street, while pianist, organist, and accordionist Gary Versace has appeared on three. The trio share producing duties and, on most of the tracks, arranging credits. Together they’ve constructed an intimate set that showcases their individual and collective strengths.

In the album’s “Prologue,” McGarry invites the listener in with the words of the great 14th-century Persian poet Hafiz (translated by Daniel Ladinsky): “The subject tonight is Love / And for tomorrow night as well. / As a matter of fact, / I know of no better topic / For us to discuss / Until we all / Die!” Intoned over a dreamy three-chord vamp, the poem distills whole philosophies into a few lines, and prepares us for the eleven-track conversation to come.

Ganz’s fresh arrangement of “Secret Love” starts with a spare bossa rhythm accented with guitar figures that recall Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird.” McGarry plays with the words in an almost girlish register that perfectly fits the lyric’s bursting declaration of love. Ganz and Versace follow her high-spirited lead on acoustic guitar and piano, all three displaying the admirably organic interplay that runs through the entire album.

A breezy approach to romantic love “gone astray” can be heard in both “Gone with the Wind” and the lesser-known “Indian Summer.” The former features a swinging Versace solo (Ganz handles bass on this and other tunes), and McGarry gives a master class on jazz phrasing, ending with a big, rueful sigh.

Ganz also contributes a stunning arrangement of “My Funny Valentine” that convincingly argues that yes, we do need another version of this oversung chestnut. It’s a delicate treatment, tastefully reharmonized and sprinkled with extra measures and repeated phrases, as if to say “we all know this song inside out, but let’s just hang here for a while to hear something new.”

The Ganz-penned “Mr. Sparkle” actually does (sparkle, that is), with guitar and voice tripping through the melody in unison. This leads into a lively bossa take on “What a Difference a Day Made” (a second listen confirms that Ganz’s tune shares the standard’s changes—a nice touch). Ironically, the one Brazilian tune on the album—composer Egberto Gismonti’s lovely “Palhaço”—isn’t a bossa, but rather a lilting waltz. Renamed “Playing Palhaço” (the Portuguese word for “clown”), the tune’s well-turned lyric by Jo Lawry expresses the yearning to “take leave of the costume and makeup” in order to know and be known by another person.

One of the real treasures here is the trio’s version of “Fair Weather” by Kenny Dorham and Benny Golson, a rarely recorded ballad in the vein of Horace Silver’s “Peace” and Jimmy Rowles’s “The Peacocks.” The slow, spacious arrangement leaves room for shifting textures—an almost reluctant, stuttering rhythm of the guitar under Versace’s understated solo, followed by a flood of notes in Ganz’s solo. It also lets McGarry give each word of this ode to brotherhood its proper weight and vocal treatment. The word “whirl” whirls; echoes of Sheila Jordan (who recorded the song on her 2003 album Little Song) find their way into her phrasing—a subtle, lovely homage.

Not to be overlooked is McGarry’s considerable songwriting skill. She has gone to the well of family before, notably in her touching song about her parents and their ten children, “Ten Little Indians,” which I first fell in love with in concert and was thrilled to hear again on her 2014 live duo recording with Ganz, Genevieve and Ferdinand. Now, on the soulful, bluesy “Climb Down,” she goes back even further, trying to exorcise the suffering of her Irish ancestors, who “turned to Christ / they turned to drink / they turned to skin and bones” during the Great Famine of the 1840s. “Losing Strategy #4” bemoans two of love’s darker aspects, revenge and its “lonely stepchild,” regret.

In her third original (with music by guitarist Steve Cardenas), McGarry turns to maternal love. “She Always Will/The River” is a haunting rumination on making peace with a life in which “Every child I never had is laughing, playing, waving, waiting for me.” Versace’s rhythmic comping runs, like the song’s river, beneath McGarry’s wordless vocal solo, and the track ends on a flowing three-way improvisation that evokes the way life—and rivers—go on. McGarry’s music has always been about telling us something true, both musically and lyrically. In this exceptional outing, she and her musical partners tell the truth about love.

Evelyn Rosenthal is a professional singer specializing in jazz and Brazilian music, a freelance editor, and the former editor in chief and head of publications at the Harvard Art Museums. She writes about musical theater and music for the Arts Fuse.

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