Tara O’Grady’s relationship with jazz started with a distinctive pair of dark mushroom-colored eyeglasses. Tara’s optometrist was wearing these glasses during an examination, and Tara requested the same frames for her new glasses. Her doctor, who went on to play guitar for Tara for 14 years, said only jazz musicians can wear these glasses. Knowing she could carry a tune and had a good voice from singing Irish trad at family gatherings and singing along to the Elvis Presley and Patsy Cline records her Irish mother played, Tara said she was a jazz singer. When her doctor asked her to sing some Billie Holiday, however, she responded, “Who’s he?”
Her optometrist directed her to a weekly jazz jam session. Each week the musicians would send her home with a new assignment: learn a song by Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, etc. After a year of faithful attendance and hard work studying songs, Tara earned the glasses. But by then, it wasn’t about the glasses anymore, of course. Tara had fallen in love with jazz singing. Compared to the Irish folk songs and rock n’ roll she had been singing before, she felt jazz was more relatable and allowed for more expression of herself.
On July 9th I caught Tara’s set at the Refinery Hotel in New York City and had the opportunity to chat with her a bit about her music, life, and band. Guitarist Michael Howell and bassist Dave Hofstra filled out her band at the Refinery. Both players bring very impressive bios, with Michael having toured for years with Dizzy Gillespie and Dave, as one of the most in-demand bassists in New York, having worked with everyone from John Zorn to Marshall Crenshaw. Dave anchored the band playing basslines that clearly kept the form and changes while bringing enough variety to his playing to keep the pieces engaging and interesting. Michael comped expertly, alternating steady quarter notes in the style of Freddie Green with short bluesy breaks responding to Tara’s melodies. And when he soloed, his playful inventiveness shone. He played some stellar bebop melodies and beautiful block chord passages. Always enjoying himself immensely, he included little jokes that made the band laugh, for example, quoting “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ On My Head” during “Stormy Weather,” and Woody the Woodpecker’s laugh in “L.O.V.E.”
But Tara’s stunning voice was the star of the show, channeling all the jazz greats. At one moment she’ll sound like Billie Holiday, the next, Nina Simone. She attributes this in part to the fact that not being able to read music, she learned all these songs from recordings. Therefore, when a certain phrase from a particular singer’s rendition of song moves her, she’ll incorporate that into her own sound. Her setlist included not only old jazz standards, but also some songs made famous by Elvis and Sam Cooke (including “That’s Alright, Mama” and “You Send Me”), traditional Irish tunes (like “I’ll Tell Me Ma” and “Nora”), and her own originals, all sung and swung with Tara’s signature smoky, sultry sound.
The arrangements of two traditional Irish songs mentioned above come from Tara’s first album, Black Irish, which is made up completely of traditional Irish songs, which Tara arranged almost entirely on the subway riding to and from work. She puts a brand new spin on these classic tunes, singing them in a swinging jazz/blues style. Many of the originals she sang on Tuesday came from her second album, Good Things Come to Those Who Wait, which she began only two months after the release of Black Irish at the encouragement of some Nashville producers who really enjoyed the first album. Instead of doing more traditionals, this album is made up entirely of songs Tara wrote or co-wrote. Hearing these songs, the listener can tell that Tara is not a strict jazz purist, embracing folk, rock, and pop influences, too. I asked Tara about her composing process, and she said she tries a variety of techniques. Sometimes a melody will come to her first, and other times, she’ll focus on a theme she wants to write about, getting some words and phrases first. Even now, she often gets her best ideas on the subway. The bridge to the title track of Good Things Come to Those Who Wait popped into her head one morning on the way to work, and not wanting to lose it, she was unable to speak to anyone until she got into her office where she could record it.
Her third and most recent album, A Celt at the Cotton Club, combines these worlds into a bluesy, jazzy, folksy album that flirts a bit with country at times, featuring both traditional Irish tunes and originals. A favorite of mine is her bossa nova take on the traditional “Black Is the Color,” which she also played on the 9th. The album version is particularly notable for an electrifying solo by saxophonist Michael Hashim.
But music isn’t the only creative outlet Tara is pursuing currently. She has also just completed a memoir, chronicling a 2011 road trip she took to reconnect with a grandmother she never met. In 1957, her father’s mother set out from the south Bronx for Seattle in a Chevy Bel Air to see the wild American west. When Tara approached Chevy with this story, for their hundredth anniversary, they sponsored her trip. From New York, to the site of Granny’s first milkshake in Idaho, to a mining hotel in Butte, MT and back, Tara followed her grandmother’s route, and Granny’s spirit followed Tara. It’s a beautiful story, to be published as Transatlantic Butterflies and the November Moon. Keep an eye out for it.
Check out Tara’s website for more information: http://www.taraogradymusic.com/.