"I wanted the fun we have onstage to make it onto the album.”
That’s how jazz and blues chanteuse Tara O’Grady describes the spontaneous energy that crackles through her excellent new album, A Celt in the Cotton Club.
“We did everything live in the studio. We don’t rehearse at all before a show and we didn’t rehearse much for the record, either,” she says.
“We recorded everything in about eight hours. I’m not concerned about mistakes. I don’t care if someone cracks up laughing in the middle of the song or if someone reacts in a certain way. That’s what happens on a live gig.”
The results make for a sassy, fizzy cocktail of bossa n’ blues that’s perfect for a spring garden brunch or a romantic evening at the Garden City Hotel in Long Island, where she plays most Saturday nights.
As was the case on her first album, Black Irish
, O’Grady puts the classic melodies of the most popular Irish parlor songs into a martini mixer, shakes and stirs the life out of it, and pours out something unique and delightful.
“Black Is the Color” is a sexy bossa nova tango that bounces on a summer breeze. “Go Lassie Go” is a jumpin’ jivin’ saxophone-laden ditty atop the purr of an upright acoustic bass.
“Too Ra Loo Ra” has a closing time feel, with O’Grady’s torchy delivery couched by a lazy snare beat and lingering blues chord structure.
“I was surrounded by music growing up,” O’Grady explains. “My granny Nora in Donegal would always sing in the kitchen and my dad is a fiddle player, so there was always Irish music around the house.
“My brother played clarinet, flute and saxophone in high school as part of the jazz band, and that introduced me to big band swing and the Great American Songbook when I was a teenager. So here I am. I have Irish music in my head, and then I have this American jazz in my head as well.”
The notion of making Irish standards into jazz standards is, in this writer’s humble opinion, a stroke of genius, yet O’Grady explains how the concept met with some resistance in her family at first.
“My album Black Irish
got mixed reviews,” she says. “Some of the family didn’t embrace it and had a hard time understanding it. They felt like I couldn’t mess with those songs.
“But people who didn’t come from the Irish genre loved it. Overall, I think audiences like happy surprises, and doing these songs people know so well with a different spin does surprise people.”
O’Grady mixes those traditional tunes with nine original compositions that are so good they sound like jazz standards.
“When the band was playing them in the studio, the bass player asked if my song was a jazz standard written in the 1930s. I took that as a compliment!” she says.
“I’m off my lover/done with him/turning to this bottle of gin,” she sings as the playful clarinet blows a perfect foil for O’Grady’s cartoonish sexiness on the Cajun-fried “You Won’t Get Me There Tonight.” It’s a double entendre about reaching the climax that is eventually attained by the exuberance of the band itself.
“Love Me Madly Lashes” is the sexiest song about eyelid hair that you’ll ever hear! Her songs crackle with the life that can only be attained by the immediacy of the stage--or the whirlwind of an eight-hour recording session!
“For ‘Black Is the Color’ I asked Michael Hashim, the sax player, for a bossa nova feel. He did something completely different and ripped it up,” says O’Grady.
“We were so stunned during the live studio recording by his performance that we didn’t come back in after his solo, so we had to do another take. It’s one of my favorite tracks on the album.”
O’Grady says she does not read music, preferring instead to hum things into a phone or something digital so that it is preserved until it can be given to a musician who can chart it for the rest of the band.
“I just write whatever time and whatever genre it falls into, I let that happen organically,” she says of her songwriting process.
“It’s almost like a wind that hits you and like the wind, it will blow through you if you don’t stop and take notice of it. I just stop what I’m doing and get it on paper.”
“A Celtic bloodline sings through her veins/wouldn’t you know the Irish want to claim you, too,” she sings on the beautiful tribute to her idol Billie Holiday on “Gardenia Girl.”
“It’s a song about Billie Holiday being Irish,” she says.
“I was talking to the writer Peter Quinn about the Bronx; he lives near St. Raymond’s Cemetery, where Billie Holliday is buried. I told him I wanted to write something about Billie. I grew up under the Whitestone Bridge on the Queens side, so it was amazing to discover that I was so close to her all that time.
“Her grandfather or great-grandfather was Irish and her real name was Eleanor Fagan. People call me black Irish because they think I sound like a white Billie Holliday, but as it turns out she was Irish like me!”
The album is a family affair, with O’Grady’s brother Tom co-writing some songs and the designing the disc’s cover art.
“There’s a light in your eyes when you look at me/I get weak in the knees when you stare/all it took was one look I’m yours dear/take my hand take my heart if you dare,” O’Grady coos atop a soulful shuffle of “La Dee Da,” a song the pair co-wrote.
“My brother sends me melodies all the time,” O’Grady says.
“The song ‘La Dee Da’ was a melody he wrote after listening to Van Morrison --he’s hugely influenced by him. He influenced me, too.
“I was asked to do a jazz version of ‘Too Ra Loo Ra’ and I didn’t want to do it because I thought it was a corny song. Then I heard Morrison’s version and decided to do it because Van made it sound so cool.”
“La Dee Da” is one example of the delicious musical dialogue that breaks out throughout the album between O’Grady and the saxophone riffs played by Michael Hashim.
“I feel the album is like Ella and Louie, because it’s a conversation between the vocalist and the horn player,” she says about working with Hashim.
The cool, deft jazz provided by Justin Poindexter (guitar, banjo), Kelly Friesen (bass) and Andrew Burns (drums) is absolutely delightful. There may be more strings joining the band soon -- who knows?
“I got a ukulele for Christmas from my fiddle playing dad and I am determined to use it,” says O’Grady.
“Maybe I’ll record a bunch of standards or write some new songs to play on it. I am open to everything, with no rhyme or reason.”
O’Grady is having a ball with her regular engagement at the Garden City Hotel, actively working with the staff to create special events that spice up her gig.
“Last week we had a cherry blossom theme and I wore a kimono, as the bar whipped up these Japanese-themed drinks and entrees,” she says.
“I work every Saturday night at the Garden City Hotel with a pianist. The dining is so good and the hotel guests are always there, so it has a built-in good crowd. But now there really has been a buzz about the shows and it has become this reservation-only sellout situation ever since we started.”
O’Grady can’t wait for the release party for A Celt in the Cotton Club
on May 23 at Mary O’s, 32 Avenue A, New York, from 7-10 p.m.
You can get your signed copy of O’Grady’s new CD in person there, at the Garden City Hotel, or at any one of her gigs around Manhattan. For more information visit www.gardencityhotel.com