The first track of Kate McGarry and Keith Ganz’s new CD, “Genevieve & Ferdinand,” immediately suggests a singer-songwriter album: voice, acoustic guitar, Paul Simon’s “American Tune.”
But McGarry, 51, has never been any one thing. Although she’s always identified herself as a jazz singer, she has long mixed jazz standards, hard-to-define originals, and a broad range of sources from contemporary folk and pop. The new album (available Feb. 4), for instance, matches Simon with a set that includes James Taylor’s “Line ’em Up,” American Songbook standards by Oscar Hammerstein and Irving Berlin, Todd Rundgren’s “Pretending to Care,” and her own affecting elegy, “Ten Little Indians.” What holds this all together is the dual artistic vision of McGarry and Ganz, 41. The two have worked together for 10 years (and been married almost as long) in McGarry’s bands and other projects, but this is their first duo album. They come to Scullers on Feb. 13.
“You could make a checklist of things that jazz vocalists today do, and she does a lot if not all of them,” says the Boston singer Dominique Eade, with whom McGarry studied in the ’80s. What’s special about McGarry, Eade says, is what’s “between the lines” of the songs. “What comes through is a voice and this combination of something very hopeful and effervescent and sparkling and also some kind of melancholy.” With McGarry, she says, the point of view “is so strong and so familiar, that it carries from one genre to another,” so that segues are seamless.
When I sit down for lunch with McGarry near New England Conservatory (where she is filling in for Eade on sabbatical), she tells me, “Any song we choose for the most part has a back story, it’s got something to give it weight to make it not just another standard.”
In fact, these days, McGarry’s entire albums are informed by back story. For 2012’s “Girl Talk,” she took a markedly feminist stance on the standards that had been sung by the female jazz singers who had inspired her. The heart of “Genevieve & Ferdinand” (the couple’s duo name) is McGarry’s “Ten Little Indians,” which alludes to her family life, growing up as the sixth of 10 children in Hyannis. Specifically, the song is a memorial to her parents, who died almost exactly a year apart, in 2009 and 2010. During roughly that same period, Ganz’s father died, and so did McGarry’s former mentor at UMass-Amherst, the African-American gospel scholar Dr. Horace Boyer.
“It was a time of exiting of the people who ground you,” McGarry tells me, “who tell you who you are in the world and set you on your path.” The song, she says, is about the long process of letting go (“Where do we come from and where will we go/ I am your arrow and you are my bow”).
As with “Girl Talk,” the personal and the political are interwoven throughout “Genevieve & Ferdinand.” Irving Berlin’s usually lighthearted “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” is given a ballad treatment that McGarry says, is about “our collective future.”
That song is typical of the couple’s working process, in which they often reharmonize old tunes, casting them in a whole new light. When I talk to Ganz on the phone from the couple’s home in Durham, N.C., he says that in their collaborations, McGarry usually comes up with “a setting, a vibe.” Then he tries to follow through on it with his chord progressions as well as a fluid rhythmic sense that borrows some of the momentum of singer-songwriter folk guitar while allowing for the in-the-moment flexibility of jazz — “so I can really move wherever the song wants to move.”
“Keith can take an Irving Berlin standard and turn it into a completely different song and yet not have the arrangement running it,” says McGarry. “The arrangement is in service to the story I want to tell.”
Between Ganz’s unique acoustic guitar vocabulary, McGarry’s jazz-singer technique (and a sound that matches delicate pliancy with raw physicality), a broad repertoire, and a shared intuition about where a song wants to go, a ballad-heavy album like “Genevieve & Ferdinand” can feel infinitely varied. In addition, the album includes the genuinely lighthearted “Can’t Help Loving that Man,” the harmonies of singers Theo Bleckmann and Gian Slater on Rundgren’s “Pretending to Care,” and a quick-moving samba by Toninho Horta and Pat Metheny, “Aquelas Coisas Todas/Third Wind/Aqui O.”
“I wanted to put that in there,” says McGarry of the samba, “because I know there’s a lot of folk-ish music [on the CD] and it felt like, ‘Don’t box us into that now.”
McGarry and Ganz needn’t worry. “Genevieve & Ferdinand” is its own thing.
The coming month is ferociously busy for live jazz in Boston. Here’s a small sampling: The great Brazilian jazz singer Luciana Souza plays a Celebrity Series concert at Sanders Theatre on Saturday with a superb trio that includes guitarist Lionel Loueke and harmonica player Grégoire Maret. . . . Drummer and composer Matt Wilson celebrates the release of his new CD, “Gathering Call,” with his quartet plus pianist John Medeski, at Scullers on Jan. 29.
. . . Also on the 29th, bassist Bruce Gertz celebrates a the release of “Open Mind” at Regattabar with saxophonist Jerry Bergonzi, trumpeter Phil Grenadier, pianist Gabriel Guerrero, and drummer Austin McMahon. . . . . On Feb. 5, pianist, composer, and New England Conservatory guru Ran Blake plays a rare club solo show at the Regattabar. . . . And the Boston-based Panamanian pianist and composer Danilo Pérez celebrates the release of an ambitious new CD, “Panama 500,” at Scullers on Feb. 15.