The Whalehead Club is located in Currituck Heritage Park on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, near where the Wright Brothers tested their first glider at Kitty Hawk; it was built in 1925 as a private residence for industrialist Edward Collins Knight, Jr., and his wife. It received its present name from its second owner, who redesigned it as a recreational facility for the U.S. Coast Guard during World War II. The Club fell on hard times during the 1970s and '80s as development sprang up around it; Currituck County finally acquired the hardy -- though deteriorating -- building in the early '90s and has restored it as a County landmark. There is a fine, 1907 Steinway piano at the Whalehead Club, and a frequent visitor in helping keep that instrument in good repair -- through playing it, of course -- is English pianist Nicholas Ross, who teaches at Sweet Briar College in Virginia about six hours away. This disc, American Impressions: Music From the Whalehead Club, features Ross and the Whitehead's piano in a fabulous program of American music composed roughly between the times the piano and the corresponding structure around it was built, featuring works by Scott Joplin, Virginian composer John Powell, Aaron Copland, Zez Confrey, Fats Waller, and George Gershwin.
Ross obviously likes the feel of this piano and the ambience of the Whalehead Club is also congenial to its sound; that doesn't always add up to a recording of outstanding quality, but here it does. You can hear the inside of the piano and all of its recesses, which is quite effective in providing a ghostly, white ambience to Gershwin's Second Prelude; when Gershwin was alone, living out on in a rented house on the Georgia Sea Islands during the composition of Porgy and Bess, you can almost imagine that this is what it may have been like to stand in his living room and listen. The slightly antiquated tone of this 1907 instrument lends a lovely sense of authenticity to the Joplin and Powell works, and Ross' performances of pieces like Joplin's The Easy Winners and Confrey's Dizzy Fingers are close to ideal interpretations by virtue of their tempo, confidence, and swagger. Waller's Alligator Crawl is a relative rarity, a piece including an unmistakably boogie-woogie pattern written by a composer known for his contempt of boogie-woogie; Ross plays this, and everything else on the disc, winningly. Many of us would like a getaway from time to time, and the Whalehead Club, with its art nouveau interiors and sprawling ocean vistas, would certainly be a pleasant one to take in real life. However, Nicholas Ross' American Impressions: Music From the Whalehead Club is a getaway that the listener can enjoy from the comfort of one's one own living room. One thing to note, however: the tracklisting on the CD doesn't quite follow what's on the CD itself; the Powell work, indicated as a single track in the notes, is actually broken out into its six individual movements and the CD has 17 tracks total.