On a first listen to Kate McGarry's new Girl Talk (Palmetto), you might not suspect any special agenda — this is simply the kind of original, heartfelt treatment of a well-chosen mix of songs that the singer has led us to expect in her half dozen releases over the past decade. But listen again.
Isn't that a particularly dark reading of "We Kiss in a Shadow"? After a slightly Latinized, scatted intro, McGarry opens up her voice with "We kiss in a shadow/we hide from the moon . . . . " But by the second verse of this Rodgers & Hammerstein ballad from 1951's The King and I, harmony and rhythm have become slightly unhinged: "Alone in our secret/together we sigh," and then a major-key resolution, "for one smiling day to be free."
Still, there's little indication of what McGarry reveals in the press notes: that her treatment of the song was motivated by the suicide of a closeted New Jersey teen who had been outed. That information gives another dimension to the song, the desire "to be free" turning it into an unlikely gay anthem.
That information is enough to color your hearing of everything that follows — the mix of jazz standards that are usually sung with an un-ironic approach to love and feminine desire. It's not just that the stripped-down version of "The Man I Love " — with its haunting shroud of organ and guitar — is bleaker than anything Billie Holiday ever dreamt of. The uptempo Harry Warren-Arthur Freed swinger "This Heart of Mine" ("As long as life endures/it's yours/this heart of mine") goes back to the verse for the coda: "Maybe it was the mood I was in/ or maybe it was you." The song ends unresolved, with Keith Ganz's guitar hanging in mid-air. So maybe it was you and maybe . . . that wasn't such a good thing?
"You've got it," says McGarry, laughing, when I reach her by phone at the home she shares with husband (and co-producer) Ganz in Durham, North Carolina. "The thing is, jazz singing is all about nuance, all the grey areas."
Girl Talk is vey much about the grey areas. McGarry has been in the forefront of incorporating the music of her time into the jazz songbook. So Peter Gabriel, Björk, Joni Mitchell, and the Cars have always come alongside Irving Berlin and Miles Davis. But in this case, McGarry wanted to focus entirely on the music of the women who inspired her — Betty Carter, Carmen McRae, Shirley Horn, and others of their generation. But how to make the songs they sang relevant to her own time?
The key was Carter's treatment of "Girl Talk." "Have you ever seen the video of the composer Bobby Troup singing it? Robert Altman directed it. It's the smarmiest of things!" In case you forget the lyrics: "They like to chat about the dresses that they'll wear tonight . . . inconsequential things that men don't really get to know/become essential things that women find so apropos."
"I had listened to Betty's version so many times, and her take on it was, 'You don't define me — nobody's going to define me with a lyric!' " And so "they" becomes "we," and the speaker is wised-up and knowing. "It's kind of 'Occupy Girl Talk,' " says McGarry.