Nice to be around
Jazz vocalist Freddy Cole shows his own unique voice for a packed house in Paradise
Freddy Cole has long struggled to get out from under the shadow of his more famous older brother, Nat, even going so far as to write “I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me,” a song about their dissimilarities. What is striking at first, however, is just how much alike they are: Their voices have a husky, smoky timbre, and Freddy also plays piano with a guitar trio.
While the vocal resemblance is paramount, it’s in his playing that Freddy asserts his individuality; whereas Nat came out of the swing era, Freddy, who’s 14 years younger, grew up when bebop burst on the scene, and his playing has a more modern focus, as his 100-minute performance in Paradise demonstrated.
The auditorium was full of members of Cole’s peer group who savored each song, and, when Cole essayed a brace of medleys consisting of songs made popular by his brother, they greeted each familiar song with an excited burst of applause. Accompanied by long-time associates Jerry Byrd (guitar) and Curtis Boyd (drums) and by newcomer (one year) Zachary Pride on an acoustic “stick” bass, Cole worked his musical magic on what he called “the song book of America’s greatest composers.”
The opener, “This Is a Lovely Way to Spend an Evening,” also served as the theme of the event (the first in the PPAC’s 2002-03 season) and perfectly described Saturday’s performance as well.
With Cole seated at a slight angle to the piano, his right foot patting out the rhythm while his left foot made use of the instrument’s sustain pedal, he and his combo (all in tuxedos) concentrated primarily on songs from the nine CDs he’s made since the mid-'90s for Fantasy (six) and Telarc (three).
Going mostly at a very relaxed pace, Cole & Co. breathed new life into such oldies as “There, I Did It Again” and “Walkin’ My Baby Back Home” but also jumped ahead to Billy Joel’s “I Don’t See You Anymore,” which got an exuberant Latin treatment. A warm-hearted man who obviously enjoys what he’s doing, Cole introduced many songs with a brief phrase such as, “This is by one of my favorite composers, Cole Porter” for “I Concentrate on You” and, “This is from the songbook of Michel Legrand” before playing a stunning version of “How Do You Keep the Music Playing?” (from his 1999 Fantasy CD Le Grand Freddy).
Byrd’s guitar solos invigorated each selection, and the intricate unison passages on several pieces showed the rapport he and Cole had developed over the years. Boyd’s support at the drum kit consisted primarily of his superb brush work during the slower, quieter intimate love songs, but when the tempo went up he switched to sticks and mallets; on a couple of Latin-flavored items (e.g., “Autumn Leaves") he used his hands on his snare and tom-toms. Pride’s “stick” bass had a good tone, which surprised me, and he dug into his occasional solo skillfully.
A measure of the intimacy Cole brought to the auditorium was in the way he introduced Abby Lincoln’s “A Circle of Love” mid-way in the first set by welcoming us “to our circle of love” and, after it was over, saying, “Everything is a circle of love.” Of course, he couldn’t get through the night without making some sort of reference to his brother, and perhaps to distance himself just a bit played “Dance, Ballerina, Dance” at a much brighter tempo than usual.
He also performed a medley of songs associated with his brother in each set, stepping away from the piano to deliver abbreviated versions of such songs as “Tenderly,” “Stardust,” “Mona Lisa,” “Nature Boy” and “Unforgettable,” all of which were very well received. And then there was his good-natured “I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me,” with lines like “Hey, Nat sounds like me, what can I say” and “I’m not trying to fill anybody’s shoes, my brother made a whole lot of money, I just got the blues,” which had the desired effect upon the audience.
A global traveler who just last month co-headlined the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Israel, Cole is no stranger to the attractions of Brazilian music, and his piano-less version of “Manha de Carnaval” had the audience sambaing in their seats. Cole’s song selection was perfect: “Angel Eyes,” “I Remember You,” “Love Walked In” and the closing “I’ll Be Seeing You.” The song that affected me most was Paul Williams’ haunting, elegiac “You’re Nice to Be Around” (from his 1996 Fantasy CD Circle of Love), a love song with the line, "'Hello,' with affection from a sentimental fool to a little girl who’s broken every rule. One who always brings me up when others seem to let me down, one who’s nice to be around."