Sunday, April 22, 2012

This Girl Can "Talk"

Kate McGarry at Scullers, 17 Apr 2012

All the buzz I’ve heard about Kate McGarry  was good.  I knew her 2005 album, Mercy Street, was called “one of the most important vocal albums of the year” by All About Jazz. The Target was named one of the best jazz vocal albums of 2007 by Downbeat.  Her 2008 album, If Less Is More, Nothing Is Everything, was nominated for a Grammy Award, with The Wall Street Journal calling it “an exceptionally appealing blend of folk and jazz.”   And her brand new album, "Girl Talk" included a duet with one of my favorite male jazz singers, Kurt Elling.  All good stuff.  But I hadn’t heard her live and so... I really didn't know what to expect.

The evening went way beyond my expectations.  I found myself entranced by the musical melding of these four talented musicians…for the entire performance.  McGarry’s husband and partner, guitarist and co-arranger on many of the tunes, Keith Ganz was fascinating to watch as he mouthed the words to each song , almost in rapture…with the music? with Kate? with the overall experience?  His playing was flawless... sensitive and nuanced.  To the listener, Ganz’s extraordinary skill appears seamless, deceptively effortless.  

Keith Ganz serenades Kate

Despite the fact that they chose not to include an upright bass player, Gary Versace’s B3 Hammond organ playing covered the low frequencies and his unique approach to the entire arrangement for each song was used brilliantly, contributing to the collective swing.   And the drummer, Clarence Penn, never missed an opportunity to add something elegant, tasteful and swinging.  He bounced off every intricate rhythmic twist McGarry threw at him without stepping on the space.  Truly remarkable.

From the moment Kate and her band started playing, they never stopped smiling ear to ear. Their apparent love of their work, their passion for the music and their enjoyment playing together translated into intelligent and moving music, pure and sophisticated.  You could feel and see them all anticipating each other's every nuanced improvisation and delighting in it.

McGarry’s skill in redefining and rearranging classic standards as well as her passionate delivery makes you believe in the song and puts a new spin on the lyrics of songs like "Girl Talk" (an homage to the female jazz musicians who inspired her such as Betty Carter and Shirley Horn),  "I Just Found Out About Love," and Dylan’s "The Times They Are A-Changin."  Her almost inaudible whisper “I hope so” at the end of that song wasn’t lost on me.  In the classic song “We Kiss in the Shadows,” (from The King and I) about illicit love, McGarry sends a deep message of support to same sex partners.  I have since found out that her interpretation of this song was inspired by the much-publicized suicide of the bullied gay teen from New Jersey.  Her clear and sweet voice is at its best in this moving song.

McGarry’s repertoire included several Brazilian songs, which I found  breathtaking.  She mentioned that she would be singing one of these beautiful songs, “O Contador,” with Kurt Elling the following evening in a New York performance.  I would kill to hear that performance.

She topped off the evening with a gorgeous duet with her Cape Cod-based brother, singer Alan McGarry. When they sang a childhood song, you could’ve heard a pin drop.  Everyone in the room was mesmerized by the sweetness of their voices blending in perfect harmony.  My only regret was not videotaping this spontaneous performance but I couldn’t take my eyes (and ears) off them.

McGarry’s rise in the music world has not gotten in the way of her rather humble and appreciative response to the audience. And let me say again, this girl can talk—I mean sing!
Kate sings "I Know You Know"

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The King of Blues

April 26th 2011
Two years ago at Gilreins in Worcester, I learned about the blues.  Dont get me wrong, it's not like I didn't know the blues existed. But "live and up close" to someone who seems to have lived the blues, well that's a different story. That was the night I heard Ricky "King" Russell.

Since then, I've heard a lot of blues, catching some well known blues artists, learning about some others, hearing some newcomers----at concerts, festivals, dive bars, jam sessions, whenever I can.  I am now an official fan, partly becuase the songs are just so danceable. Partly because the songs are so raw and unpretentious.   You simply can't play the blues without letting yourself go.  At least not well.

During the last two years, I've been able to catch Russell only a few times, since he seems to play closer to his south shore digs or in venues that require a road trip on my part.  The last time I heard him was last summer at Parker Wheeler's Sunday night Blues Party at The Grog in Newburyport. A great venue and with Michelle Wilson, a stellar event. 

This week, Russell was playing at Smokin' Joe's in Brighton. Casual atmosphere, no dance floor, and despite lots of competition with the Bruin's game at the bar, the place was rockin' and Ricky was at his peak once again.  The man just doesn't seem to work that hard to be a consummate blues artist.  His voice, his guitar and many of his original songs like Crawling Over Broken Glass, Uptown Woman and Basic Black, are iconic blues songs.  His title "the king" is well-deserved.

The band consisted of two horn  players: Doc Chanonhouse on trumpet, Scotty Shetler on tenor sax and those two, playing off each other, elevating the overall experience for those of us crowding the small room.  Bob Worthington on bass and Danny Banks on drums - two musicians that seem to play with Russell much of the time; again two talented musicians.. Danny was 16 the first time I saw him play with Russell ; now he's 18, playing with  well-known local musicians as well as his own band and starting at Berklee in the fall. There were several illlustrious crooners in the house that night that later stepped in, including  Racky Thomas and Lydia Warren. Although I've danced to the Racky Thomas Swing Band, I'd never heard Warren and she was "on fire"  and clearly knew how to find her way around a guitar.  At one point, Russell joined here for a duet.

A news flash for other blues fans inclined to travel south, now that the weather is warming up: According to Russell, there is a new blues venue in Hyannis, House of Bud. Check it out and if you want to make it really worth the trip, make sure you visit when "the king" is performing.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Front & Center at Chan's: Junior Watson

4/2/11  Arriving at Chan's after the first set, our lateness was punished by a sub-standard seat assignment in a dark corner with nearly zero visibility of the stage. Frustrated but not deterred, my companion and I managed to elbow our way to an upgrade for the second set--front and center seats directly in front of the stage. I am still not sure how that happened in such a crowded room, but it did. In all my years of listening to live music in a concert setting, I've never been quite so close to musicians. 

Matthew Stubbs, who had been  playing lead guitar during the first set, stepped aside to play bass, making room for Junior Watson, legendary Canned Heat guitar player. Watson was accompanied by the talent of Sax Gordon on the tenor saxophone. 

I was so close, I could read the set list and reach out and touch the neck of Watson's copper-colored mother-of-pearl Harmony Stratotone guitar; and I was 6 inches from the open end of Gordon's sax. I was privy to on-stage-only exchanges like "I'll give you a cue" or "It starts on a five."  During one energetic song, Watson's pick went flying right to my feet. I nonchalantly handed it back. For the first two songs, I just starred, looking from one to the other as they astounded me with their skill and ability to read off of each other.
Soon into the set, Watson asked if there were any hippies in the audience, gaining immediate rapport with several of the over-fifty set. From there, he proceeded to share some very intimate and compelling stories that spanned his 40 years of sex, drugs and rock and roll.  All this was punctuated by some very skilled guitar-playing, perfectly acompanied by the other musicians.  I have heard Gordon several times but I have never heard him play quite so passionately, without holding back and perfectly complimenting Watson's intense riffs.
Up close, I was only able to focus on one musician at a time and unable to take in the full sound of the entire band.  I started to feel too close for comfort.  Toward the end of the set, I moved a few seats back and found my personal feng shui, where I was able to more fully enjoy the concert, listening to tunes such as "One Night with You," and "The Pleasure's All Mine."   It was great show and the crowd responded with a standing-o and were rewarded with a fine medley, led by Watson. The band found their space immediately; it took me a little longer.

In leui of my own video from this night, here's a clip of Watson's performance from another night. 

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Great Tribute...and a Great Night: The Yoko Miwa Trio

I wasn't planning on going to the Yoko Miwa concert that would mark March as Women's History Month, paying tribute to the great jazz vocalist, Sheila Jordan.  But it was destiny---I stopped working at my computer and listened to her music and her story as WICN's Joe Zupan interviewed her.  As I listened to  one of her songs, I thought, "This is why I like Jazz. It's comforting and familiar and full of surprises and can bring you to places you've never been."  So I changed my mind and went. 

Once everyone had found a seat in the packed Regatta Bar, we were treated to an introduction by the diva herself, Ms. Jordan, coming to us via flat screen TV, adding that she was "thrilled to be talking to us and honored" to be the subject of this tribute. The two women are clearly members of the "mutual admiration society."  After looking around at the crowd of fans that had come to hear this talented pianist, Miwa started by talking most affectionately about Jordan.  Throughout the concert, she paused to share story after story about Jordan, including a suggestion that the two may be collaborating at some point in the future..

The first song opened up with a hauntingly beautiful voice piped in through the speakers, soon joined by Miwa on the piano in perfect harmony. Soon, the band is in full swing right out of the gate, on the first song.  Pretty impressive.

This petite, pretty Japanese woman looked so delicate as she entered the room and speaks so softly when she shares her stories, smiling demurely.  But when she sits down at the piano, you realize she is no pushover.  Her strength and agility pour through every song. She has full command of the instrument and her passion for playing is not hidden.

Miwa shared her inspiration for one of my favorites songs, Sorrow-full Moon. In Japan, she tells us, when you see a big, beautiful full moon, rather than seeing "the man in the moon," they see "two bunny rabbits with hammers, making moshi." (everyone laughs). On one day, however, this moon looked to her like a very sad moon and became the inspiration for this haunting melody.  Maybe I detected a little nostalgia for the home that she'd left 30 years ago. 

The audience was engaged and relieved to love this musician whose charming manner gave her an instant connection with the audience.  At one point, she stopped mid-song to confirm with the audience that the Brazilian song she was playing, Qua Qua Qua translated to  "The Sound of Laughter." (One bold man confirmed this).  Miwa also paid homage to several other female musicians as she played Dancing in the DarkGirl Talk and other jazz standards.

The acoustic bass, played by Greg Loughman and the drums, played by Scott Goulding, nicely complimented Miwa's energetic and passionate piano style and it's no surprise.  This talented trio have played together for 10 years, an anomoly for a band, any band.

So that is why I like Jazz. It's comforting and familiar and full of surprises and can bring you to places you've never been. For those of us "first-timers" hearing this piano virtuoso, I'm sure we'd all agree: It's such a pleasure when you go to a concert not exactly knowing what to expect and you get an expereince that just leaves you saying "wow."

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Joel LaRue Smith Trio: Thank You, Saint Agnes!

Five pm is a strange time for a concert but I wanted to hear this band since I liked the CD and I liked the artist.  When I arrived, a woman said "I hope it's not just us."  I remember what my musician sister once said to me and I repeated it to the woman:  "If they don't get a crowd, it's a paid rehersal for them" and its a private concert for us. Still, it's so much better for performer and audience both when there is a supportive crowd environment.  And by the time the Joel LaRue Smith trio started playing there was a crowd---and an energetic one at that.

The venue was in the campus center lecture hall, complete with tiered seating and computer outlets at nearly every seat.  Joel LaRue Smith sat at the beautiful grand piano with Fernando Huergo on bass and Tiago Michelin on drums. They were ready to play.  The audience was ready to respond.

This was the first jazz performance in this room, named after its benefactor, Dr. Agnes Varis, sometimes referred to as "Saint Agnes Varis."  In response to the 2005 Hurricane Katrina's displacement of over 1000 musicians and destruction of their homes and their instruments, Varis set up a fund giving these musicians numerous opportnities to play.  A long time benefactor of the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine in Grafton, her gift to the school resulted in what is now called the Varis Lecture Hall within the Campus Center, the location of this concert.  And Smith is here to "break in" the jazz in this lovely performance setting.

The buildup of the first song, Narrow Escape, (an original by Smith), is punctuated with a cymbal flying through the air and landing, miraculously, on beat. And somehow, this little distraction works and although the music had everyone's attention, we are now are rivoted. The band exchanges smiles amongst themselves and moves on.

During all this, I find myself caught up in the nonverbal communication among the musicians. Smith signals the drummer "Get ready to go," shaking his head up and down as he stares intently at the drummer.  Later on, he signals that it's time to close out the solo by showing three, then two then one finger.  All this while following charts and playing.  There's the "Nice going" signal of a quick smile and head shaking up and down but my favorite is the "Awesome!" signal---an even bigger smile and more head shaking. Its the "we-really-struggled-with-that-rif-during rehearsal-and-we-just NAILED IT!" signal.

Another Smith tune, El Mensajero, (The Messenger) the title derived from the the Jazz Messengers, is an upbeat and complicated rhumba with lots of "twists and turns" as Smith puts it.  He teases the audience with a threat of a "hum the tune" test afterwards. I'm glad he was only kidding.  I would have failed.

One of my favorites is a Thelonius Monk song, Straight, No Chaser, that he dedicates to his father, introducing it with "I promised my father I would play a blues." I loved it.  As they continue to move through a wonderful selection of Afro-Cuban originals and arrangements of songs by celebrated jazz greats, my foot is tapping and I know I have come to the right place.   What a great way to warm up a chilly grey afternoon. 

For more information on the band, Smith's music, or to purchase a CD, go to

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Mick Reed: Urban Cowboy

I missed the CD release party in Manhattan the day before but what the hell,  I was visiting my sister and only four miles from the next stop on the tour- Theodore's in Springfield, MA. I walked through the doors and thought "What a great place!" I found Mick and the band, finishing up dinner and getting ready to play. Mick leads with vocals and guitar, accompanied by Casey Abrams (lead guitar), Chris Butler (drums),  Jaime Lamb (double bass) and Nate Trier (keyboards).

I'm a huge fan of live music. With studio recording, you get all the precision that technology allows along with multiple instruments,  and all the other benefits of multiple takes.  But I still love the raw experience of live music.  That's where I was able to see the forever-calm and laid-back presence of Mick Reed as he sings and leads the band through his original compositions with his country twang vocals.  As he lays out story after story of the sad and lonely life of a cowboy, I can detect the smile of a man who loves doing this and quite frankly, ma'am, he is perfectly happy to play to a crowded room or sit on his front porch chewing on a wad of tobacco and contemplating the wide-open range.  Even when his band takes a break, he continues to sing...he's just so laid-back, nothing frazzles this urban cowboy.

His lyrics are so visual....and then it hits me.  Of course: his day job is video producer.  He's a visual guy, he percieves the world through his eyes and his imagination.  And that's the common denominator of his songs: his lyrics paint rich and vivid images like these from a track on the new album, "A Fool at the Other" that he sings with the help of Madeliene Peyroux on the CD.

You got me staying up til the sun comes up
And there's nothing left but ashes in this coffee cup
You got me playing solitaire
'Til I pull my hair
Oh, brother...

But its more than that.  It's that he's so damn convincing, this new dad who lives in a suburb of Connecticut, who seems as much at home in the midst of city life as he seems to be on the range...or at least in this wonderfully divey wide open blues bar in the middle of Springfield, on a chilly Tuesday night with it's oversized Indian motorcycle sign overlooking the pool players and the roughly painted mural of  hallowed bluesmen.

For more information on Mick Reed and his latest CD, Goodnight, Texas, go to

Jazz Interplay: Noah Preminger

Scullers, Feb 23, 2011 -Noah Preminger
with Frank Kimbrough (piano), John Hebert (bass), Matt Wilson (drummer)

I recently had a chance to hear Noah Preminger, tenor saxophonist-composer, in his performance marking the release of his 2nd CD, Before the Rain.   Although this collection differs from his first CD, Dry Bridge Road, in that it is mostly ballads, the “creativity and passion remain extremely high" on both albums, according to Ed Enright, Downbeat.   I was certainly able that to hear that passion on this night.

The other aspect of this band that you can’t help but notice is their synergy. According to Preminger, there are things that happen between himself and Frank Kimbrough (piano) that "aren’t planned but are perfectly in sync."  And he seems to have that interplay with the other members of the band as well.
At first Preminger seemed a bit awkward on the stage in front of the audience, almost a shy can’t-look-you-in –the-eyes demeanor.  But I soon saw that this was one of the looks of a musician lost in his music, while maintaining enough control to produce some amazing range on the instrument. 
With the opening tune, the rich sound of the alto saxophone filled the room…gave me a chill right off. And I found myself lost, too, in this seemingly free-form medley that included Toy Dance, an Ornette Coleman tune.  Another Coleman tune, Street Woman, was embellished by Kimbrough’s compelling piano solo, his classical influences shining through. Preminger’s delightful interpretation of Where or When shows just how much of a “natural” this versatile musician is.
The bass player John Hebert, took a fabulous solo on the title song, Before the Rain, that was beautiful. Matt Wilson, the drummer, is clearly a favorite of the audience and after listening to his playing, I can see why.  
In Nancy with the Laughing Face, all four talented musicians are showcased with solos and the audience has a chance to witness firsthand, that magical thing that happens when musicians play off each other by sheer intuition.  Preminger, Kimbrough and (bass player) John Hebert have been playing together for nearly 4 years.  And it shows. Listen to how Preminger ends the song, how he and the others inject their own sort of voodoo into this beautiful tune. 
Interestingly, this is a song I never paid attention to until I heard Kurt Elling’s arrangement and delivery of it.  It turns out Preminger played with Elling in high school.  As an added note, I had the amazing opportunity  to attend Kurt Elling’s concert a few days later, at the same venue.  This was a good week for music.

Currently residing in New York, Preminger went to New England Conservatory of Music where he made some very important contacts including Ruth Lepson, a teacher and poet.  Preminger collaborated with Lepson, setting some of her poetry to the music.  Another former teacher from “the conservatory,” Bob Nieske, is a bass player that Preminger has played with.
Although Preminger grew up listening to a fairly eclectic group of musicians, including Joni Mitchell, Joshua  Redman, Orleans and Grateful Dead, his parents were avid Jazz enthusiasts and that clearly had an impact.  Today, Preminger cites Charlie Parker as one of the great influences on his music.  He also mentions Mun, an Icelandic band that has inspired him personally and Fred Hirsch, an “amazing piano player” says Preminger, who he will be playing with in an upcoming gig.
I, for one, will be keeping my eyes on the “up and coming” talent of Noah Preminger and his band.  For more information about Noah Preminger, go to