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If Less Is More... Nothing Is Everything

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Album Review

The central challenge for traditional pop singers with jazz leanings since at least 1970 (and arguably since 1950) has concerned repertoire; that is, given that no one is writing the kind of songs that made up the Great American Songbook of the 1920s, '30s, and '40s anymore, and given that Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald have thoroughly raided those for definitive interpretations, what is there left to sing? Different singers have addressed the problem in different ways, but none may have ignored it quite as much as Kate McGarry, for whom If Less Is More...Nothing Is Everything is her fifth album. McGarry represents a generation that grew up listening to Joni Mitchell and Crosby, Stills & Nash for its sophisticated pop songcraft, and while she clearly presents herself as a jazz-influenced pop vocalist in the cabaret tradition, she is at least as sympathetic to the post-Bob Dylan singer/songwriter era as she is to the era of the Great American Songbook. The result, for her, is a sort of hybrid of the two. She leads off this album, for example, with Irving Berlin's "Let's Face the Music and Dance," but Fred Astaire would barely recognize it in this rendition, while Rickie Lee Jones might be tempted to sue for the crime of impersonation. The song is taken at a languid tempo, and McGarry slips and slurs her way through the song just like Jones did on so many of her performances of the late '70s and early '80s. (Indeed, Jones turns out to be the primary vocal influence on McGarry throughout the album. If "I Carry Your Heart" were added to a reissue of Jones' 1981 album, Pirates, with the claim that it was a previously unreleased track from its recording sessions, few would notice anything amiss.) "You're My Thrill," which follows, is McGarry's real claim to jazz legitimacy, a song associated with Billie Holiday that she sings with a sense of Sarah Vaughan's timing and phrasing as well as Ella Fitzgerald's bubbly intonation, plus a dab of Diane Schuur. McGarry's choice of covering the Cars' "Just What I Needed" is the second riskiest repertoire decision here, after Dylan's "The Times They Are A-Changin'," but unlike that song, it doesn't quite work. Again, the Rickie Lee Jones influence is prominent, as the arrangement slows the tempo to a crawl so that McGarry can mull over lyrics like "It's not the perfume that you wear," perhaps giving the song a gay connotation, or at least an unusual one. More successful is a reading of Crosby, Stills & Nash's "You Don't Have to Cry," on which McGarry joins with singers Jo Lawry and Peter Eldridge for a very different vocal trio performance over a percussion arrangement. And the samba numbers, "Caminhos Cruzados" and "Flor de Lis," provide a welcome change of pace. McGarry is powerfully assisted by her backup band, particularly keyboard player Gary Versace, whose use of the organ provides surprising textures to some of the arrangements. McGarry doesn't entirely solve the repertoire problem on If Less Is More...Nothing Is Everything by pretending it doesn't exist. But she successfully pays tribute to the varied music she loves and manages some unexpected musical marriages in the process.

Customer Reviews

Jim Macnie from the Village Voice says:

"Yep, lots of modern jazz singers are trying out lots of modern pop songs these days. So it takes a truly inspired choice matched with a truly accomplished performance to make a dent. Spin McGarry's hushed amble through the Cars' "Just What I Needed" to see how high the bar can be set. The singer's experimental tendencies are invariably lined with craft; she's taken with a tune's pliability, but she uses skill, not crossed fingers, to bend it. The proof is all over the new If Less is More…Nothing Is Everything". ~MACNIE, VILLAGE VOICE

She just keeps getting better and better!

I've been a fan of Kate McGarry for many years - and this new album totally pays for my enthusiasm. It's deep, it's smooth, it's easy to listen to over and over and over again - yet it holds a power that makes it so compelling. Just as the title says- "Less Is More" - the use of space and silence enliven each and every song in the album with great awareness, and never in a studied or contrived way. Here is a master coming more and more into her own. HIgh marks!


I really enjoyed her take on "Just What I Needed" - it was always one of my favorite Cars tunes and she really does an interesting cover of it. I love the tenor of her voice as well!


Born: 1970 in Hyannis, MA

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

Being one of ten kids, Kate McGarry had to learn early on how to make her voice be heard. Hailing from the Boston area, McGarry attended the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and studied Afro-American music and jazz under such notables as Dr. Horace Boyer and avant-garde saxman Archie Shepp. Free from the confines of education, McGarry hopped into One O'clock Jump, a vocal group based in Boston. Thanks to their steady gigs in Monterey, McGarry got the opportunity to be a guest vocalist with...
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If Less Is More... Nothing Is Everything, Kate McGarry
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