A voice and a guitar. No musical pairing is more romantic than this. The shared vibratory feel, the natural balance between the two, the intimacy of the musical dialogue—no wonder one in four Americans ranked the guitar as the sexiest instrument to play in an (admittedly old) 60 Minutes/Vanity Fair survey. (For what it’s worth, the saxophone was almost tied with the guitar in seductive value.) Songbook singers have always appreciated the gentle strains of the soft guitar: Ella Fitzgerald’s long-time musical partnership with guitarist Joe Pass gave us some of her most introspective tunes, Diana Krall’s husky contralto, backed by guitarist Russell Malone’s near-psychic comping, has broken countless hearts, and Nina Simone created an immutable musical legacy under the guidance of her guitarist/bandleader Al Shackman.   

Singer Kate McGarry and guitarist husband Keith Ganz belong on this list of important guitar-voice collaborations. The pair have recorded five albums together, including the Grammy-nominated If Less Is More…Nothing Is Everything (Binxtown Records)—an oeuvre that makes full use of McGarry’s gentle, strong, and eerily beautiful voice. This rare vocal quality, coupled with McGarry’s tremendous skills in phrasing and improvising, are the vocal characteristics that make listeners sit up and take notice.

The team’s most recent release, The Subject Tonight Is Love (Palmetto), with keyboardist/accordionist Gary Versace, is notable not only for McGarry’s shape-shifting skills as a singer across genres, but for the new line of musical inquiry that McGarry delves into lyrically. The subject may be love, but the album is no paean to romance. “I wanted to look at love from a lot of different angles,” McGarry says. This is not your typical Songbook singer.

Nothing about McGarry is typical, though. To be sure, listen to “Mr. Sparkle/What A Difference A Day Made,” which opens with a stunning vocalese before settling into a subtle Latin groove, or “My Funny Valentine” (the “most abused of love songs,” McGarry quips), which sounds fresh and new in Ganz’s thought-provoking arrangement of the classic ballad. You can do so at Jazz Standard on Valentine’s Day, Feb. 14, when the trio will present the newly minted CD—along with their take on all matters love-related.

Two formidable jazz talents have just released their first strings albums—an auspicious move for both. After 15 recordings featuring small ensembles and spare, reflective vocals, singer Stacey Kentnow takes the mic before a London studio orchestra on I Know I Dream: The Orchestral Sessions (Okeh/Sony). Kent’s work here is as luscious as ever and no less intimate for the crowd of musicians in the room around her. It’s hard not to be swept along with the violins on “Les Amours Perdues,” one of three French tracks on the disc, or with the poignantly romantic Portuguese lyrics of “Mas Uma Vez.”  Quite possibly Kent’s most alluring album to date.  

Gregory Porter also recorded his strings album in London—and how thrilling it is to hear his bear hug of a voice soaring over Vince Mendoza’s magnificent arrangements. Nat “King Cole” & Me (Blue Note), Porter’s tribute to one of his early musical idols, invokes the soul of Nat King Cole even as it lives and breathes in the present day. On the album Porter delivers his own soulful take on some of Cole’s most beloved tunes (“Mona Lisa,” “L-O-V-E” and “Nature Boy,” for starters) and reprises his own composition, “When Love Was King,” this time with the benefit of Mendoza’s orchestral vision. To satisfy the inveterate romantics among us, Porter will be playing Carnegie Hall on Valentine’s Day, one night only.

Trumpeter Andrew Distel has a horn player’s ear for improvisation and singer’s heart for love songs. On his latest album It Only Takes Time (Jeru Jazz), Distel reveals both with appealing alacrity; from the infectious scat on the Gershwin tune “Who Cares” to “Amor,” which opens with a guitar-vox duet, not one moment falters. Be on hand to hear Distel sing from the album at Sisters Place on Valentine’s Day.  

Our condolences to the friends and family of Marlene VerPlanck, the traditional pop singer whose career spanned more than 60 years.  VerPlanck passed away in January at the age of 84. Her final gig was a successful stint at Mezzrow in December; in 2016 Downbeat ranked her final album, The Mood I’m In (Audiophile), as one of the year’s best releases.

(Reprinted from the February 2018 issue of The New York City Jazz Record.)