The Kate McGarry & Keith Ganz Ensemble: What to Wear in the Dark  [Resilience Music Alliance; Sep. 3]

The jazz singer Kate McGarry already had one Grammy nomination in 2009, when she arrived in Durham from New York with Keith Ganz, her partner in music and life, who grew up in the area.

She’s earned two more since then. The Subject Tonight Is Love, with Ganz and their longtime keyboardist, Gary Versace, got the nod in 2018 for its sensitive settings of poetry by Hafiz. McGarry was recognized again, in 2020, for her part in a large-ensemble album by the visionary John Hollenbeck.

In all that time, though, another record—their “white whale,” as McGarry says—was taking shape. It finally saw the light of day (to use a cliché advisedly) last week.

What to Wear in the Dark features Ganz, Versace, and nine other musicians, including McGarry’s first work with the trumpeter Ron Miles, of Bill Frissell fame. It proffers fresh, vivacious jazz interpretations of pop music from the late sixties and the seventies: Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, Cat Stevens, and The Beatles’ “Here Comes the Sun.”

Yet for all their comforting familiarity, these arrangements emerged from some of McGarry’s and Ganz’s hardest times, and the album is sequenced as the same kind of lifeline for listeners, through the dark and out again, that creating it was for them. McGarry is already renowned for the winning naturalness with which she blurs jazz into folk and pop, from Peter Gabriel to Björk, and What to Wear in the Dark continues that tradition with graceful gravitas.

INDY WEEK: What brought you to Durham?

KATE MCGARRY: What first brought this music out was that we lost a lot of people in a short time: both my parents, Keith’s dad, and a real seminal teacher of mine. It’s very disorienting when the people who kind of hold you are just wiped out, and you’re like, well, who am I? Looking down the road at New York, as much community and great things as we had there, we were longing for a more peaceful, sustainable situation.

KEITH GANZ: We loved it here, but she had no connection to anyone, and I immediately went on tour with Harry Connick Jr.

KM: I was really in a kind of freefall space. I sort of lost my identity as a singer, and then I had a career-threatening vocal injury. This snowball of big events was jarring, and these arrangements started to come in places of real despair. It sounds corny, but it was something sustaining and real, like a thread to hold onto in these old songs. Other songs started to come that were a reflection of jarring world events that were happening.

As someone who has made many nineties-music Spotify playlists during the pandemic, I relate to that urge to reach for familiar, comforting songs.

KG: She already had the name for the record before the pandemic, which turned out to be the perfect time to release it. We didn’t know how dark things would be.

KM: The pandemic afforded us the opportunity to finish the record. We had had one recording session in 2017, and then another just before everything shut down. We ended up having this year to sculpt it and put it together, and we did one more song that was the capstone, Cat Stevens’s “On the Road to Find Out,” with Becca Stevens and Michelle Willis.

The record starts with “Dancing in the Dark,” and given your track record and the context, I genuinely thought it was going to be Springsteen. Why Sinatra?

KM: It felt like the beginning of the record. It was sort of like going from a time of naivete and innocence into the darkness where you can’t tell what’s coming. We had the old-timey bass drum and Gary playing accordion. We always have a foot in both camps, one in the jazz camp and one in some kind of folk or pop camp. So, it’s pretty true to form to include some standards.

Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell—these are things a listener might expect from an album like this. But I don’t think anyone saw “Desperado” coming, and you play it really straight.

KM: There was a time when there were so many mass shootings every week. I had a sense of the aloneness of people, and it felt like a kind of prayer to reach somebody. That seems like it’s grown even more, the loneliness that drives people to do horrible things.

“It Happens All the Time in Heaven” brings us back to Hafiz.

KM: He’s a 14th-century poet-saint but he’s so contemporary. He cuts through bullshit [and] says the truth. It was inspiring to me the way that he talks about love among men and women, men and men, women and women—the main thing is, how can I be more loving to you?

Speaking of cutting through bullshit, I have to ask about your spiel at the beginning of “The 59th Street Bridge Song.”

KM: As we worked on the main arrangement, which was really about reconnecting to the joy of life, I was feeling that the over-monetization of the music industry and the self-promotion machine, all those things had just gotten so ramped up. I remembered this book by Hal Galper, called The Touring Musician. I wanted to put in a paragraph for contrast, with everybody playing free and raucous, and then have a release.

You recently did a livestream at Sharp 9 Gallery in Durham. How challenging is it to promote this record?

KM: That was the first time we had played the music with a full band in 16 months, and it was really fun. I’m very sad to see that it doesn’t really feel like it’s safe to go back out. The idea that we would bring people, friends and family and fans, together when they might get sick, it just feels like it’s not time. Luckily, Resilience Music Alliance is a dream label, and I feel like they’re going to help us get the music out there despite the lack of touring opportunities now.

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