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Just a singer and a piano

It's back to basics in music as we look at two CDs: nothing but one singer with a solo piano. The two singers at the mics are opposite types, and likewise the piano agendas. A Birdland mainstay, the vibrant rich-voiced Hilary Kole projects a youthful vitality and optimism—even on sad songs. She fully shares the spotlight with a rotating number of superstar jazz pianists with distinctly different, sometimes showy styles. Roger Cairns is dead serious, with a deep melancholia, and is paired on all tracks with Gary Fukushima, whose work is generally extremely spare and reserved. Most of the time, with both CDs, it's mostly about intimate communication, singer and pianist serving each other and many classic songs.

Hilary Kole DuetsHILARY KOLE
YOU ARE THERE: DUETS

Justin Time Records

Talk about a dream come true for a singer! What could be a better living-out-a-fantasy situation than to have your CD be collaborations with a series of living legends of the jazz piano world, each bringing his long-noted way with notes and approach. Some of them don't have accompanying singers as their main occupation, so it's all the more special. The sublime tracks on Hilary Kole's satisfying album, You Are There, were recorded as the busy jazzmen's schedules allowed, over the course of the last few years. This resulting scrapbook is a treasure trove of talents, each of the major league players bringing his own flavor and flair and occasional flash. Many take fascinating solos where the listener can marvel at the dexterity and inventiveness. Some accompaniment is very much of the same emotional tone and color the singer is laying out in the drama of the song's story, the pianist seeming to be supportively right at her side reinforcing that and fleshing it out. Other times, the pianist is contributing a contrasting but complementary counterpoint or goes off in a more abstract, exploratory jazz jaunt in a solo section. Some are ornamental in their accented playing, others take a subtle, tender tack on a track. It all works superbly, and the side-by-side performances with different players at Hilary's side makes one not only deeply appreciate the keyboardists' very varied ways, but her adaptability to go with the flow. 

Hilary's liner notes state that most of what we are hearing was done without rehearsal. Perhaps that's why we sense that the partners are so focused and truly listening to each other and responding in a real give-and-take, moment by moment. When appropriate to more dramatic moments, there's a palpable creation and release of tension, yet much of the singing sounds supremely confident and relaxed. The record is justifiably subtitled Duets.

Two of the 11 pianists return for a second stint at the piano bench; the others have one track apiece. The CD opens with one of the great Hank Jones's two appearances; it's the brightest, lightest of all the cuts, with a sparklingly fleet piano solo, "If I Had You." The other Jones collaboration is the more reserved and rapturous Jimmy Van Heusen/ Johnny Burke "But Beautiful," the playing and singing ably fitting the descriptive phrase of the title: sensitive and soulful. Recorded a year ago this month, these two Jones recordings are especially poignant as the veteran Mr. Jones passed away in May at the age of 91. The other pianist with two tracks is another longtime legend, Dave Brubeck, in full wistful ballad mode with the classic "These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You)" and "Strange Meadowlark," a song he wrote his wife Iola.

The only other example of the pianist also being the composer is the presence of Michel Legrand on "How Do You Keep the Music Playing?" in the grand Legrand flourishing, open-hearted passionate style as Hilary opens up vocally and emotionally in a catharsis exposing the uncertainty and hope expressed about maintaining a longtime love relationship in the Marilyn & Alan Bergman lyric.

There's one vocal exception to the one-voice-with-one-pianist theme, and that's with Freddy Cole, whose more laidback, raspier singing voice is nothing like the velvety, floating tones of our leading lady. As he accompanies her vocally and at the keys, the combo of Kole+Cole coalesces into an affectionate mutual admiration society, sweetly trading solo lines and disparate energies and then singing together on the oldie, "It's Always You" (Van Heusen and Burke again). Rather than being just a nostalgic bit of sentimental fluff, the song has a gentle manner but the lyrics stand out and capture a listener's consideration more than they usually do because it becomes a conversation and comparing of notes about how two people understand their relationship patterns. And the musical notes are rather appealing, too, in this special mix.

Despite the jazzy inventiveness on some solos and more abstract accompaniment that takes liberties, such as Cedar Walton's work on Cole Porter's "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," Hilary is mostly traditional and respectful in her taking on the standards' basic sensibilities. The one taken most out of its original structure and style is Sigmund Romberg and Oscar Hammerstein II's "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise," here loose and free from its operetta girdle. With the colors chosen by Benny Green and Hilary's more contemporary, non-stodgy phrasing, melodrama of "the passions that kill love" are subdued and it's far more understatedly reflective—quite an achievement, really. Much yearning ripples through the treatment of Stephen Sondheim's "I Remember" from the TV musical Evening Primrose, with the singer's caring, affectionate phrasing making us see and relish with her the very specific images and similes in the lyric. Mike Renzi's powerful yet restrained playing has undercurrents of cumulative regrets and rushes of bittersweetly mourned memories.

I am very much in the camp of those who see tremendous growth in Hilary Kole as an interpreter in the last couple of years. She digs into lyrics, considers and colors words, lingers over them and shades them and seemingly has a master plan of the effect for the whole song and its arc as well as this detail work. Sure, occasional brief indulgences in stylizing and forays into pretty flourishes for their own sake, perhaps, remain, but Kole now has soul. This summer she returned to the revue where many first saw her once once-over-lightly ways in New York City: Our Sinatra at the Algonquin's Oak Room (it will continue on Mondays, but with revolving casts, as Hilary continues to hold court on many Sundays and other times, a few blocks away with the band at Birdland). 

On this CD, as on her recent debut disc Haunted Heart, she demonstrates the deepening skills and shows that she is one of those voices a recording studio mic and ambiance seem to love. Her attention to phrasing and storytelling is perhaps best illustrated in one of this album's most challenging dramas, the classic lament of "Lush Life." Others get by with painting it with broad brush strokes of pessimistic, beaten-down weariness and despair. Those characteristics are not naturally in her lovely, shimmering vocal persona; instead, she comes off as a stronger-but-struggling woman still realizing the depth of the abyss but with potential to climb out. In this and so many tracks, such as the title song about feeling the mystical or dreamed presence of a certain dearly departed one, Hilary Kole and her stellar piano partners do make you feel like "You Are There"—sitting next to her as she confesses or ruminates .... or maybe in a small jazz club late at night when it's all about the power of the song. Delivery is assured.

Roger CairnsROGER CAIRNS
THE DREAM OF OLWEN

AHP Productions

The word "exciting" can't apply to Roger Cairns's CD, nor can "sweet" for tone or "fleet" for Gary Fukushima's attractive piano accompaniment and arrangements, as it's an overall low-key affair. This is true even when a song's subject matter might be upbeat and joyous, like Rodgers & Hart's effusive news about how wonderful a beloved woman is, "Wait 'Til You See Her." More in line with the stricter but graceful tempo of the melody than the ebullience of the lyric, it is understated like the rest of the album, which has a preponderance of decidedly downbeat weepers like the Jerome Kern/ Leo Robin beautifully written but self-pitying "In Love in Vain" about how "you hang around the house and eat your heart out and cry your eyes out and wrack your brain." Laments are aplenty. His voice is stark and dark. But he and the CD also have a grace and dignity. The arrangements and piano work are of a simpatico no-frills, discrete, reserved-but-thoughtful bent.

Although the lack of variety is a concern, the man is an effective communicator and delineator of lyrics. There is an intimacy here, a minimalism of voice and presentation and approach, underscored by the choice of having just solo piano as accompaniment—and non-showy reserved playing at that. Slow tempos are the order of the day. This can be mesmerizingly successful or numbing, depending on your taste or how much you're listening to at a time. "Ebb Tide," with its elegant and very even piano intro and later accompaniment framework—suggesting the inevitable crawl and slow, soothing rhythm of the tide that is the subject and metaphor—is rightly hypnotic. Still, on this and other tracks with such moods and limits in the singing and tones, the cumulative effect can be almost funereal. It takes some adjusting to, for sure, and can be mature and mellow magic of its own relaxing, thought-provoking kind. "Somber" and "reflective" work very well indeed here, at least for a while. And the naked, true voice can touch the soul, cutting like a laser beam into crevices of your mind with its big share of integrity despite a small range that is not over-challenged to sound uncomfortable. It's quite musical indeed. Nevertheless, my mind wandered—on the longer tracks especially.

There is great taste shown in song selection, with grown-up songs from the pens of the Bergmans, Johnny Mandel (sometimes together), Alec Wilder and the wistful, memory-tugging title song the singer co-wrote about his UK homeland. Vocally, there's some struggle for high notes on this cut, although some of that works for the "yearning" quality inherent in the piece. As a change of pace, despite the turtle-like pace, this album can be quite rewarding and feels like it is from the heart and sincere. There's a strong, strong sense of wisdom from a long road of life's struggle and appreciating quiet joys. As he sings in the Rodgers & Hart classic, "pensive and sweet and wise."


- Rob Lester


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