Katie Guthorn is not known as a jazz singer, to which I say: Why not? She’s one of the gifted ones; one of those singers who can do anything. Here, she puts her spin on some of the most familiar songs of all time, and makes them sound refreshed and new. Conversely, she takes more contemporary compositions, by Joni Mitchell, Ben Folds, R.E.M. and Stevie Wonder, and makes them sound like they’ve been around for ages; old and comfy.
Somehow I’m not surprised. In recent months, I’ve enjoyed catching her casual band, the Soul Delights, doing Motown and other R&B and pop classics at a coffee shop in San Francisco. There, she’s a “girl singer,” along with Kathy Kennedy, singing and swaying, doing solos or ooh-ing behind boy singer Charlie Owen. Katie and Kathy are perfectly at ease, doing girl-group steps and moves…in a neighborhood coffee shop.
In less recent years, I caught her starring in a campy but affecting holiday musical, “A Karen Carpenter Christmas.” Katie not only portrayed Karen; she embodied her – mind, spirit and voice.
But Katie, who’s also swayed and sung behind some other stellar voices – Bonnie Raitt, Ronnie Spector, Martha Reeves – deserves to be up front. Now, with strong support from Tim Haggerty, a seasoned keyboard and bass player, and an excellent ensemble, she is.
It may be surprising to some that she’s made a jazz album. As it turns out, she’s rooted in jazz. Her father, Peter, used to hit the Village with his Columbia University classmate, Ralph J. Gleason. Her uncle, Fred Cole, got the bug even earlier. At age twelve or so, he’d take the train to the Apollo to catch jazz concerts and, years later, would befriend some of the musicians he saw. One of them, the great guitarist Eddie Condor, wound up having, as his doctor, one Peter Guthorn. All in the family.
Beyond family connections, Katie recalls tackling jazz tunes when she was a kid, in singing classes, and hearing what have become known as American standards around her house, and at neighbors’ homes. Later on, she worked at a radio station that played all big band music.
As steeped as she is in older music, Katie’s always kept up with current sounds. As a singing teacher, she has to know the music her students want to do. The evidence here is that she knows a lot.
It’s not just the range of songs (“Basically, this is a group of songs I like,” she says), from Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington to Paul Williams (with “Rainbow Connection,” of all things) and R.E.M. (with the title song). Katie is an actor. She conjures an innocent (“The Luckiest”), a disappointed lover (“You Don’t Know Me”), an assertive, feisty woman (“Call Me,” “Overjoyed”). And in “Rainbow Connection,” you hear hints of the voice and tone she employed to get audiences thinking they were hearing Karen Carpenter.
We are hearing Katie Guthorn, upfront, giving us a dozen reasons to smile.