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
"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
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!