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Kate McGarry: Singing Silence

Kate McGarry

Perhaps it was inevitable that vocalist Kate McGarry develop a keen appreciation for quietude and a sense that she’d “always been drawn to the space of silence between the notes.” Growing up on Cape Cod as the sixth of 10 siblings (seven girls and three boys), in a raucous household filled with music of all stripes, McGarry’s formative years provided limited tranquility. The massive McGarry brood was regularly confused for another large and multitalented Irish-Catholic clan. “We often got mistaken for the Kennedys,” she says with a laugh, “because we lived about a half-mile around the bay from their compound and attended the same church. The Kennedys had their own pew right up front at St. Francis Xavier, but my parents would march us right up front and seat us in their row!”

After graduating with a degree in music from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in 1985, McGarry escaped the confinement of East Coast life and headed for the wide-open space of California to “spread out and really be able to work on my craft.” There, she focused on learning from instrumentalists to hone her singing skills. “I was exposed to Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans and Miles Davis,” she explains, “and fell in love with the fact that there weren’t words and that the melodies were so free. And I appreciated the way they interacted with the harmonic structure. It was uncharted territory, and I was able to hear their ‘voices’ without being distracted by a storyline. Also, I studied with Archie Shepp while in college. He is an orator on saxophone, telling such impassioned stories, and so rooted in the blues. His was one of the first really strong voices I heard that wasn’t from a vocalist.”

Though she admits spending several years as a strident, card-carrying member of the jazz police, ultimately her love for folk music-and her love for the man who would become her husband, guitarist Keith Ganz-diluted her jazz purism. “Keith’s guitar playing has so many facets,” she says. “He’s been influenced by wonderful folk elements and a fingerpicking style that has nothing to do with the Jim Hall school of jazz, so to speak. We were perfectly suited to walk down that path together and see where the intersecting lines were. The first album we did together was Mercy Streets [in 2005], and we found so many places where, just naturally, the lines blurred and you were hearing jazz harmonies but singing and playing with more of a folk influence. It all went into a big melting pot.”

Though McGarry’s belief that “it is in the silences that the secrets of the songs reveal themselves” has been evident on all of her albums (including her work alongside Peter Eldridge, Luciana Souza, Theo Bleckmann and Lauren Kinhan as part of the sterling vocal collective Moss), her latest release, the aptly titled If Less Is More … Nothing Is Everything (Palmetto), brings it into sharpest focus. “I guess,” she says, “if there’s a theme in my life it is that what is left unsaid is the real thing [and is] what’s most important. Where words leave off, there’s just an experience of wholeness or completeness or whatever the emotion is. It can even be deep sorrow or suffering or grief. There’s something about silence that makes it a more potent communicator than sound.

“So having silence be a member of the band is vital. All the people on the album [including Ganz, organist-pianist-accordionist Gary Versace, bassist Reuben Rogers and drummer-percussionist Clarence Penn, plus guest percussionist James Shipp and guest vocalists Jo Lawry and Eldridge] have the same feeling. We’d find as we were playing that there were these great, empty stretches and everyone felt so comfortable not filling them in. Artistically it is what I hope for most: that space be respected and cherished, and I really feel it was throughout the album.”

Among the heady mix of originals and covers that fills If Less Is More … are stunning readings of “Let’s Face the Music,” “You’re My Thrill” and the Cars’ “Just What I Needed,” plus a transcendent interpretation of Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “You Don’t Have to Cry.” Perhaps, though, the most heartfelt of the album’s 10 tracks is a powerfully optimistic version of Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin'” that McGarry dedicates to President-elect Barack Obama. “I go back and forth about whether music should be partisan,” she says, “but about four months or so before we went in to record the album, the primaries had just begun and I heard him speak. He said we have to reinvest in our children’s education in the arts, insisting that he wanted his own children to be fluent in the arts. I thought, ‘Wow! This man must be so evolved to be thinking this way.’ We haven’t had anyone like him since Martin Luther King. It gives me great hope that we’re ready to rise to a new level where we’re truly civilized and genuinely care for each other. So many people are scared of that, but I think we’ll get there.”

Originally Published