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Katherine Whalen Katharine Whalen’s Jazz Squad (Mammoth)
A review by Courtney Knopf
Female jazz vocalists are a dying breed in the 90’s, but Katharine Whalen seems poised to inherit the legacies left behind by Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. As female vocalist for the North Carolina outfit Squirrel Nut Zippers, Whalen has already established herself as a unique and talented singer with her Betty Boop meets Billie Holiday voice. But with her first solo effort, Katharine Whalen’s Jazz Squad, she tackles songs that are more straightforward jazz than her eclectic work with the Zippers.
Joined by her husband, and fellow Zipper, Jim Mathus on guitar and banjo, as well as Stu Cole on bass and Je Widenhouse on trumpet, Whalen mostly performs standards from the 20’s and 30’s, which were favorites that came from her own record collection.
Throughout the entire album, Whalen’s voice comes off more refined and confident as she attacks classic after classic. The album opens with her swingin’ take on "Deed I Do," aided by Mathus’ Django Reinhardt inspired guitar. A lovely and decidedly midtempo version of "No Greater Love" really showcases her affinity for Billie Holiday but without the sense of heartbreak and tragedy that Holiday’s voice evoked. But the opposite can be said for her take on the melancholy "Yesterdays," which calls to mind images of smoky bars and shattered relationships, but then picks up the tempo so you're not left crying into your cocktails for long.
The only original tune on the album, "Badisima," was written by Mathus and is an up tempo number with some great solos by saxophone player Cecil Johnson, Mathus and piano man Robert Griffin. Entirely instrumental, it recalls some of Duke Ellington’s more swinging moments. You may recognize "All My Life" the song Julia Roberts tunelessly warbled in Woody Allen’s Everyone Says I Love You, but Whalen’s voice flawlessly makes her way through it aided by Griffin’s tinkling piano. The Nina Simone trademarked "My Baby Just Cares For Me" takes off in a different direction and downplays the boogie woogie piano that typically accompanies and places more emphasis on the saxophone to amazing results that even swing nazis could find danceable.
The Jazz Squad’s take on "After You’ve Gone" is where real Zipper flavor comes out as it strolls along at a leisurely pace with Mathus on banjo and slowly works itself into a New Orleans jazz tinged fervor featuring the clarinet of Mike Minguez and John Kennedy’s trombone, easily conjuring up images of Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and Hot Sevens marching down Burbon Street spreading the gospel of hot jazz.
Any fan of the Squirrel Nut Zippers will enjoy this album, and fans of classic jazz vocals who are unfamiliar with the band will appreciate the respect with which Whalen has treated some of her favorite songs. As the swing craze dies out among the trendspotters always looking for the next big thing, long time jazz and swing fans will be able to treasure this gem of an album for a long time to come. Now how’s about Volume Two?