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Chuck Berg is professor and chair of Theatre and Film at the University of Kansas. His jazz commentaries have appeared in Jazz Times, Down Beat, Jazz Educators Journal, Coda, books such as the Oxford Companion to Jazz, and in liner notes for U.S., European and Japanese jazz labels. When not teaching or writing, Chuck plays tenor saxophone and flute with his group in the Lawrence/Kansas City area.

I'm All Smiles Liner Notes


"Kathleen Holeman is the real deal, a singer who can sing." I had the pleasure of writing those words for a rave I penned for the Topeka Capital-Journal titled "KC Jazz Diva Soars at Topeka Jazz Workshop." I therefore come to the happy task of writing these notes as a partisan. I am a devoted Kathleen Holeman fan!

Since first meeting Kathleen several years ago in preparing notes for her debut album, the acclaimed Donít You Wonder?, Iíve had the joy -- as countless other Kansas City area jazz fans have had -- of watching her continue to grow. With Iím All Smiles the happy beat goes on. In fact, thereís a palpably positive feeling thatís just plain life-affirming. In Kathleenís hands, even Billy Strayhornís "Lush Life" exudes good cheer.

"Life is wonderful and I feel so blessed to be able to share these feelings and sounds with so many people," the St. Joseph, Missouri, native told me recently. Speaking of sharing, Kathleen also gives full credit to her fellow musicians. "The guys helped me pick some of the tunes, and I feel that this is their album as much as its mine," Kathleen stressed. "Most of our small group arrangements are a collective effort and it was great fun to see how the songs would turn out!" Now, we get to share that "fun."

The ear-grabbing opener, Michael Leonardís "Iím All Smiles" provides a perfect keynote. As suggested by the title, itís a happy-go-lucky, three-quarter-time affair elevated by Kathleenís wonderful voice and the simpatico backing of pianist Paul Smith, guitarist Rod Fleeman, bassist Bob Branstetter and drummer Al Wiley. Here, as throughout the album, although itís Kathleen out front, itís very much a collaborative effort. Everyone and everything swings!

"I felt that this album should have a large variety of songs from different genres," Holeman mentioned. "And, of course, I feel that any song that I perform automatically transforms to jazz! I also hope the listener hears a different part of my personality on each tune." Along with "variety," one might also note her versatility. With her thrilling instrument -- with its great range, pinpoint sharp intonation, and ability to effortlessly move from a whisper to a shout -- Kathleen touches an array of effectively contrasting emotional and musical registers. From her languorous limning of "Love Dance" with its tropical Brazilian undertones to the pell-mell race through Cole Porterís "In the Still of the Night," there are musical marvels galore.

Kathleenís musical assets are just one part of the story. Indeed, Kathleen is also a consummate storyteller, a dramatist par excellence. In the heart-throbbing "Why Did I Choose You?," when she gives voice to the lyric "If I had to choose again, I would still choose you," itís an unforgettable moment that resonates deeply. Kathleenís moving treatment of Charlie Chaplinís touching "Smile" benefits similarly from her musical-dramatic synergies.

Kathleen is also an accomplished songwriter. In her debut, the title track was a haunting "what if" ballad she called "Donít You Wonder?" "This time, I knew that I wanted something different. Since Iím an upbeat but slightly sarcastic person, I came up with ĎSmile All the Whileí which is very much an explanation of how I like to handle my life." Abetted by Rich Cobleís bluesy wah-wah trombone work, Kathleen recites a catalog of everyday travails surmounted by her gritty, "donít let the bastards get you down" advice -- "Smile All the While."

While most of the tracks feature the tight quartet backing of Smith, Fleeman, Branstetter and Wiley, there are several notable exceptions. On the Ellington classic "I Let a Song Go Out of My Heart," Terry Brockís spirited fiddling is reminiscent of the magical auras created by jazz violin legends Joe Venuti, Stuff Smith, and Kansas Cityís own Claude "Fiddler" Williams. Rich Cobleís brassy charts for Johnny Mandelís "Close Enough for Love" and "The Bare Necessities" featuring some of the areas top brassmen are additional delights. Iím also partial to guitarist Danny Embreyís arrangement of James Taylorís "Youíre Smiling Face," which allows Kathleen to show off the pop-jazz side of her persona.

Still, thereís nothing quite as satisfying as the basic format of Kathleen and the quartet of Smith, Fleeman, Branstetter and Wiley. Revealing her penchant for verses, the rubato voice-piano opening of the Fran Landesman-Tommy J. Wolf evergreen, "Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most" is a show-stopper. And when the quartet enters to caress Kathleenís statement of the melody, well, it just doesnít get any better!

Now, good listener, itís your turn. Kathleen Holeman is a class act. Smart, talented and blessed with good taste, everything she touches turns to gold. To Kathleen and her eminent colleagues, Congratulations! And, Thanks!

Chuck Berg



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