Friday, August 18, 2023

Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz Deliver Beautifully Eclectic Music to 1905 Jazz in Portland

Keith Ganz and Kate McGarry (photo credit Ralph A. Miriello)

The gifted vocalist Kate McGarry and her guitarist husband Keith Ganz had a one-night, two-set performance at Portland's 1905 Jazz Club on August 15, 2023. The two artists reside in Durham, North Carolina so it was a treat to see them at the first set at 1905 on this leg of their west coast tour. 

McGarry is a three-time (2009,2019,2021) Grammy Nominee who has made her mark singing with elegance and superb expressivity all her own. Over the years McGarry's craft has found her performing on such revered stages as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. She lights up the stage of such jazz venues as Birdland in NYC, The Velvet Note in Atlanta, hear at 1905 and after this at Sam First in Los Angeles. She has been featured at jazz festivals like the Newport Jazz Festival, Jazz Baltica, and the Berlin Jazz Fest to name a few.

Guitarist Keith Ganz is himself a talented Grammy nominee. His subtle, thoughtful fretboard work provides the perfect accompaniment and at times the timely rhythmic/harmonic inspiration to McGarry's vocal explorations. Watching these two interpret familiar and more obscure compositions becomes a rewarding journey into an artist's creative use of expression. What's so refreshing is that they are not hamstrung by a repertoire that is shackled by genre or style. 

The set opened with Joni Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning" a song from the singer's second album Mercy Streets and released in 2005. Originally, the song was made famous by Judy Collins. It was inspired by Mitchell's neighborhood in the Chelsea section of New York City and is bursting with imagery. Certainly a folk classic, McGarry's voice is the perfect instrument, clear and vibrant, with a knack for storytelling that is effervescent with child-like excitement and awe. She and Ganz don't just play it straight. The vocalist punctuates the imagery in the lyrics with her own vitality. McGarry's instrument is so flexible, so pliant that she probes limits to the music that you maybe never thought could be applied here, revitalizing it and making it her own.

The second song they performed was a campy Isham Jones & Gus Khan composition from 1924 "It Had to Be You."  McGarry can be wonderfully coquettish, animated, and expressive when it suits her, and on this one, she made the tune all her own. She is a master of using tone and phrasing to make whatever song she sings distinct.

Ganz's guitar work was precise, fluid and warm throughout. After an expressive take on Leonard Cohen's "Anthem", the two performed a song by Paul Curreri titled "God Moves on the City." Ganz used a capo to change the open stringing and his fleet fingerpicking in the higher register rang through like chimes swept by the wind.  McGarry's breathy voice whispered the lyrics like a storyline folktale direct from the Americana tradition. She has an amazing ability to draw you into the story she is telling like she is living it there before you. A transcendental treat for the entire crowd.

Keith Ganz 

These musicians have telepathic rapport and they next tackled Jerome Kern's "Nobody Else But You," which McGarry recorded on her 2014 album The Target. This shuffling tune featured a glissando of high notes from McGarry and some quick, pert lines from Ganz that allowed McGarry to skat in unison with her partner's guitar lines. There were no charts, just an embedded familiarity with each other's improvisational inclinations, and sometimes, judging by their facial expressions, they playfully surprised each other, extending the well-worn boundaries beyond what may be expected.

Ganz's composition "Snow Picnic" was originally written for one of his earlier bands. McGarry loved its pace and challenging multiple key changes and she included it in her 2005 release Mercy Streets. In the intro, McGarry traces the serpentine guitar lines with her voice. The song morphs into a Brazilian-inspired rhythm where she sings the lyrics in Portuguese. Music is an international treasure and it's all so inspiring to hear how world savvy these artists can be in their music. 

McGarry has used poems as inspiration for writing songs for them before. This night she chose one that I was not familiar with and missed the title of, but I remember her plaintive voice uttering the line with moving sincerity as she sang the lyrics facing Ganz "My dear, can I be more kind." 

Keith Ganz and Kate McGarry 

The duo changed the mood, digging into the songbook and coming up with their own vibrant take on the Duke Ellington classic from 1939 "In A Mellow Tone." McGarry's voice adapts to the feel of the music and Ganz's guitar masterfully embellishes the music with his subtly sensitive fretboard work. 

Another anthem, Bob Dylan's classic "The Times They Are A-Changin'," was brilliantly offered with McGarry's plaintive voice being paced by Ganz's rhythmic guitar work. This song still has a sustained appeal to the audience. They relate to the song's hopeful message only reinforced by a skilled interpreter like McGarry. 

The audience was filled with vocalists who came to see this master ply her trade so admirably and they requested that the two reprise her smoky take of the Neil Hefti song Girl Talk from her 2012 album of the same name.  McGarry and Ganz didn't disappoint, and even sans Gary Versace's soulful organ accompaniment, the two did a splendid job of digging deep and bringing out the blues in this classic torcher.

This is my third time seeing McGarry and Ganz live and they never fail to make a trip to see them well worth the effort. Their repertoire is impressive and as eclectic as the mind can make it. Few artists can take a song, reimagine it and astonish you with unique interpretations that are so real and inspired. If you get a chance to catch them live don't miss the opportunity.

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