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POP MUSIC | JAZZ SPOTLIGHT

Songbird can't be pigeonholed

Amid a wave of skilled vocalists, Kate McGarry eschews cliches and shows keen imagination.

May 29, 2005|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Success in the entertainment world can be a rewarding journey for those fortunate enough to experience it, a frustrating maze for those attempting to follow those successes.

Diana Krall and Norah Jones, for example, have achieved rare sales levels and global visibility for a pair of performers from jazz backgrounds. But despite a continuing flow of young -- and often talented -- female singers eager to assume Krall- and Jones-like characteristics, none have produced results, in creativity or marketing, comparable to those of the originals.

Another wave of singers is beginning to sketch out different vocal jazz road maps. Most are relatively unknown, some are from outside the U.S., and all are individually defining their art while embracing the past and looking to the future. Their models, for the most part, are not Krall and Jones but aesthetically driven individualists such as Nina Simone, Abbey Lincoln, Sheila Jordan, Mark Murphy and Andy Bey.

Kate McGarry has been around for about a decade, based in Los Angeles before she relocated to New York in 1999. Always admired by musicians for her imagination and musicality, she has carefully avoided entertainment-act cliches in favor of digging deeply into the substantive content and inner meanings of her songs.

"Mercy Streets" (Palmetto Records), only her second CD, reveals McGarry's quest to find the broadest possible array of material. She starts with Joni Mitchell's "Chelsea Morning," proceeds through Peter Gabriel's "Mercy Street" and Bjork's "Joga (State of Emergency)," adds a couple of standards ("How Deep Is the Ocean" and "But Not for Me") and a tune of her own, "Going In."

That's a pretty demanding program, but McGarry navigates it superbly. Shifting rhythms here, transforming melodies there, bringing swing and vitality to pop perceptions, she always goes for the unexpected. McGarry is also that rara avis: a scat singer who actually improvises through a song's harmonies rather than superimposing familiar riffs. And in "But Not for Me," especially, she displays an enviable capacity to sing compelling melodic paraphrases as well.

Best of all is McGarry's sense of musical authenticity, beautifully blended with her always-original musical vision. It's a rare combination from a singer who deserves a far wider hearing.

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Emphasis on musicality

Other singers are equally drawn to the notion of focusing first upon musicality. Here's a representative sampling. With the exception of Luciana Souza, they are not as well known, even, as McGarry. Some of the albums are available only on the Internet. But all are first-rate.

Luciana Souza

"Duos II" (Sunnyside)

Souza comes from a sterling Brazilian musical background; her mother and father are both well-known songwriters. She likes to say that her voice is her true instrument, and she's right, but her simple description fails to give full credit to the breadth of her art. As the title suggests, this is Souza's second album conceived as voice and guitar combinations, and the results are mesmerizing. The material -- except for Antonio Carlos Jobim's exquisite "Modinha" -- will not be especially familiar to American audiences, but the intimacy of Souza's performances transcends familiarity and language.

Daria

"Feel the Rhythm"

(Jazz 'M Up Records)

Based in the Bay Area, Daria (she uses only her first name) has accurately titled her second album. Rhythm is the undercurrent driving most of the tracks, sometimes in such rarely heard metric formats as 15/16 ("All or Nothing at All") and 7/4 ("Feel the Rhythm"). But the album is less about offbeat rhythms than about finding different interpretive framings and making them work (with the rendering of Sting's "Fragile" a particularly impressive example). Daria's clear, crystal alto, precise pitch and atmospheric warmth bring everything together in a program that juxtaposes her originals against songs by, among others, Alec Wilder, Stevie Wonder, Angela Bofill and Antonio Carlos Jobim.

Fleurine

"Fire" (CoastToCoast Records)

Like McGarry and others, Dutch singer Fleurine reaches into pop for material, singing Bruce Springsteen's "Fire," Peter Frampton's "Show Me the Way," Nick Drake's "Fruit Tree" and Paul Simon's "Still Crazy After All These Years." In each case, her warm, enveloping sound and gentle, rhythmic drive transform the songs into something well beyond the original sources. Her performances are enhanced by the presence of some first-rate players, including Brad Mehldau, Peter Bernstein, Seamus Blake and Gil Goldstein. And the inclusion of some well-crafted originals, including Fleurine's touching tribute to a newborn, "Hey Little Girl," attest to the broad reach of her talents.

Annie Sellick

"A Little Piece of Heaven"

(Chalice Music)

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