Stephanie Nakasian and Kate McGarry headline female vocalists’ showcase at Jazz&Blues Co.

Women’s Voices: Coming Up: Kate McGarry (left) and Stephanie Nakasian bring some of the finest voices in jazz—and greatest potential—to Carmel.

In recent years there’s been a palpable sense of rising expectations as jazz fans eagerly await the emergence of singers capable of carrying the tradition forward. That sense of anticipation is what makes this weekend’s performances at the Jazz&Blues Co. in Carmel particularly intriguing.

Two shows will help answer the question: Where are the fabulous women jazz singers?

The 1990s saw the passing of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae and Betty Carter, a veritable Greatest Generation. The new century has been slow to offer up commensurate promise.

That’s not to dis Dee Dee Bridgewater and Dianne Reeves, the two conspicuously-talented heirs to that tradition. Or to overlook veteran artists such as Mary Stallings, Carol Sloane and Ernestine Anderson, who are still going strong.

But this weekend, two lesser-known singers will demonstrate that we may be entering a new era of the chanteuse.

On Friday, the clear-toned vocalist Stephanie Nakasian, a cool singer in the tradition of June Christy and Anita O’Day, performs with the brilliant and too-little-known bebop pianist Hod O’Brien, redoubtable bassist Michael Zisman and ace drummer Vince Lateano (who has worked with many fine singers, including his wife, Madeline Eastman). Focusing on a repertoire of well-known standards and obscure gems, Nakasian specializes in weaving together medleys of unlikely tunes, such as “All My Tomorrows” with the King Pleasure vehicle “Tomorrow’s Another Day.”

“She’s got that Ella approach, a hard-swinging thing, recomposing the melody and scat choruses,” says O’Brien, who made his recording debut on the classic 1957 Prestige album Three Trumpets featuring Art Farmer, Donald Byrd and Idrees Sulieman. “We do a lot of Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin, Kern and Fats Waller. Stephanie likes to look for tunes that haven’t been done.”

Saturday’s concert features Kate McGarry, one of jazz’s most promising young singers, in a duo with guitarist Keith Ganz. She gained widespread exposure earlier this year when pianist Fred Hersch featured her in his ambitious Leaves of Grass project, an evening-length work setting verses from Walt Whitman’s seminal volume of poetry to music. Hersch has accompanied just about every major jazz vocalist on the scene, from 1950s stars like Chris Connor and Carol Sloane to bold experimentalists such as Dominique Eade and Luciana Souza. So when he tapped the relatively unknown McGarry for the high-profile gig, it was a major boost.

She more than met expectations at the Bay Area Leaves of Grass premiere at Herbst Theatre last March, holding her own on stage with the charismatic vocalist Kurt Elling, delivering her stanzas with a startlingly vivid presence.

On Saturday she’ll be focusing on music from her latest CD, Mercy Streets, an album that reveals an artist with a captivating vision steeped in jazz technique that’s comfortable drawing on the confessional intimacy of pop singers like Suzanne Vega and Joni Mitchell. Rather than relying on straight-ahead arrangements of well-trod standards, she creates sparse, harmonically open settings for songs by Mitchell, Bjork, Peter Gabriel, Brazilian guitarist Toninho Horta, Irving Berlin and the Gershwins.

She also provides lyrics to a gorgeous piece by Hersch, “Stars,” and offers an accomplished original song of her own, “Going In,” a tune that Hersch says is “as good (or better) than what you hear from many big-time artists.”

It was Hersch who recommended McGarry to his record company, Palmetto, which led her critically acclaimed 2003 album Show Me, the label’s first release by a singer. The relationship deepened when Hersch invited McGarry to participate on his Two Hands/Ten Voices album for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, joining established artists such as Sloane, Souza, Janis Siegel, Jane Monheit and Karrin Allyson on the fundraising project.

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Raised on Cape Cod, McGarry immersed herself in jazz while studying at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She encountered Keith Jarrett’s album My Song through a boyfriend and was immediately hooked. “I would go to his apartment and sit and listen to it over and over,” McGarry recalls. “It felt so free and beautiful, I wanted to have that experience in music. This is the feeling I want to have when I’m playing.”

After several years making her way on the Los Angeles jazz scene, she relocated to New York in the late 1990s and developed close ties with a small group of players, including guitarist Steve Cardenas, bassist Sean Smith and drummer Kenny Wollesen. Working with Cardenas and Ganz, she has crafted starkly effective arrangements, treating contemporary pop tunes with the same care as American Songbook jewels.

She’s found that tunes like Mitchell’s “Chelsea Morning” and Bjork’s “State of Emergency” work their way into her head, “just hanging around in my consciousness for a couple of years until I get it out onto paper and start playing it with a band,” McGarry says. “Hopefully that time lag will be shorter. My path is to try to do something that’s going to lay bare the essence of a song’s feeling.”


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