The Boston Phoenix
June 3 - 10, 1999

[Music Reviews]

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Jazz squads

The Dirty Dozen, Katharine Whalen

by Jon Garelick

Dirty Dozen Brass Band Both the Dirty Dozen Brass Band and vocalist Katharine Whalen have tapped into jazz's elusive pop crossover audience -- that is, an audience that includes jazz fans but also a lot of people who aren't. The Dirty Dozen have maintained that crossover popularity over the course of a 22-year career. Whalen has done it more recently as a member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers -- a band almost single-handedly responsible for the '90s jump-blues trend known as "swing." The Dirty Dozen and Whalen are touring together in support of new albums on Mammoth, and their crossover appeal should make their appearance at the Middle East this Saturday an event.

The Dirty Dozen pretty much revived the New Orleans marching-brass-band tradition when they formed in 1977 -- the second-line shuffle of parade snare and bass drum, the rollicking countermelodies of massed brass and reeds, the pulsing bottom of a sousaphone. But the Dirty Dozen opened up the brass-band tradition. They took in bebop and beyond; they returned the out-there wails of the Art Ensemble of Chicago and the World Saxophone Quartet to their Bourbon Street roots. Adding occasional keyboards or electric bass, they identify themselves now as a stage band rather than a parade band, but the parade beat rarely lets up -- and neither does the urge to shake butt.

In typical Dirty Dozen fashion, their new John Medeski-produced Buck Jump sustains unity across a diverse range of styles. Marvin Gaye's "Inner City Blues" is a rich weave of horn lines over the New Orleans funk beat. "Pet the Kat" is Afro-Latin with flute. "Run Joe" (originally popularized by jump-band king Louis Jordan) gets a Louis-Armstrong-singing-reggae effect. "Duff" favors dissonant harmonies and echoey electric Miles trumpet. "Time" opens with a hard-riffing deep-sax figure that's joined by aerial brass lines. After trumpet and tenor solos, there's some out-there collective improv before the return to the head, and everywhere there's Julius McKee's rippling, propulsive sousaphone.

Although there's a smattering of vocals (key to any jazz crossover), it's the horns that do the talking here. You can hear it when trumpeter/vocalist Gregory Davis works a mute or guest trombonist Keith Anderson unleashes a statement that's both funky and long-phrased eloquent. The Dirty Dozen uphold the maxim that "working the tradition" doesn't have to be limiting -- it can include the world.

The Dirty Dozen's music is New Orleans born-and-bred; Katharine Whalen's tastes are acquired from her record-collecting habits and those of her pals in the Zippers. Nothing wrong with that -- musicians are born by record collections as much as they are by the ward parade band. And there's nothing wrong with falling for the music your grandparents might have listened to. Whalen's singing is smoky and understated -- it creates a mood and is especially effective crooning along with a pedal steel guitar on the Zippers' "Low Down Man."

With the Zippers, Whalen is a featured vocalist (along with guitarist Jim Mathus). But Katharine Whalen's Jazz Squad is all Whalen. According to the press material, she felt she had to narrow her focus -- and that focus is Billie Holiday. A bad move. Whalen just doesn't have the chops. Besides adopting Holiday-associated tunes like "Yesterdays," "Deed I Do," and "Now or Never," she plays with Holiday's improvised dipping and climbing notes that veer just left-of-center of the written melody. At her best, Holiday's readings of songs were desentimentalized, sometimes even dripping with sarcasm. Her melodic variations played on the rhythms of the text, and she swung all the more because of the notes she chose as well as where she placed them. When Holiday sings, "You told me that I was like an angel/Told me I was fit to wear a crown," she reduces it to a single note, and her emotional intent is unmistakable.

Whalen goes for the Holiday sound, and those emphatic bent notes, but her choices feel arbitrary -- not like choices at all. When she jumps in register for emphasis, as in "There is no greater love than what I feel for you," it's all mannerism. Sometimes she barely hits the note ("My old flame/I can't even think of his name"). "All my life," she sings, but that first note -- that first word -- is almost all air, and the dramatic effect evaporates. Even when Holiday's voice was all but gone and her audience was listening as much for her autobiography as for her musicmaking, she rarely lost dramatic focus.

Whalen's joined by a few Zippers on the disc, but the album is an easy swinger with a small piano-and-guitar quintet and none of the Zippers' hyped-up novelty tunes and clever arrangements to vary the action. Whalen's comments about her music are humble, and I believe her ingenuousness. She's working at it. But so far the real thing hasn't come along.

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and Katharine Whalen's Jazz Squad play this Saturday, June 5, at the Middle East. Call 497-0576.

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