Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts
April 16, 2008
It was a pleasure to attend and review this double bill at the Kimmel Center with two most honored and respected musicians and their quartets: Freddy Cole and Dave Brubeck. Both groups gave their all, producing some exceptional music.
FREDDY COLE QUARTET
Freddy Cole, the brother of Nat King Cole, is a great vocalist in his own right, having experienced early on the presence of many great musicians, including Nat, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Lionel Hampton. Over the years, he has developed his own laid-back vocal style and a rich repertoire of standards as well as some great CDs, including one with Jimmy Scott which is a personal favorite.
Critics tend to downplay his similarity to brother Nat, despite an unmistakable resemblance in their vocal inflections and piano playing. Nevertheless, Freddy has undeniably developed his own unique style, and while he will remind you of many crooners, his is an immediately distinguishable voice. Freddy is Freddy, for which we can all be grateful. He is a consummate professional, and his interpretations are rich and memorable.
Cole and his group performed a fine mix of up-tempo swing tunes and introspective ballads, which included "I Remember You," "Something Happens to Me," "Please Don't Change Your Mind about Me," "I See Your Face Before Me," and two tunes from his new CD, Music, Maestro, Please: "If I Love Again" and "Why Did I Choose You?" Next came the Fred Astaire vehicle "The Continental (Beautiful Music, Dangerous Rhythm)," and from his CD Because of You, dedicated to Tony Bennett, "What Are You Afraid Of?" To close the set, he sang "Little Girl" in a swinging, up-tempo version, to which the quartet brought intense energy. The audience was demonstrably well pleased.
Cole's sidemenRandy Napoleon on guitar, Elias Bailey on bass, and Curtis Boyd on drumsdid an excellent job of backing Cole, each making the most of ample solo opportunities. Especially noteworthy was Napoleon's guitar work, echoing Barney Kessel in its sound and inflections.
Cole's singing puts the music ahead of his ego: unlike some of his peers, there's never a hint of a cult of personality. He brought out the meaning of each song with dedicated artistry. His humorous performance of "What Are You Afraid Of?" conveyed the implicit theme of a desperate guy trying to make it with a woman though this portrayal of a slick African-American man manipulating for love seemed to this reviewer, if not an overdone stereotype, an outdated one. It was not hard at all to have a preference for Cole's subtlety of expression and "right on" swing in the other songs.
Cole managed to evoke an intimate nightclub atmosphere, which is difficult to accomplish in a large concert hall venue. To the nostalgic-minded or true film buff, the image of Dooley Wilson as the pianist "Sam" in Casablanca singing "As Time Goes By" might readily have come to mind. Freddy Cole, too, is a perennial who stands in no one else's shadow, not even his brother Nat's.
DAVE BRUBECK QUARTET
I am sure that when Dave Brubeck dies and goes to heaven, they will have a piano waiting for him! He is truly an immortal. What a thrill to hear this man at the age of 88 playing with all the verve, ingenuity, and technique of the young lion that he was when I heard him in the late 1950s at Carnegie Hall with Paul Desmond, Gene Wright, and Joe Morello. With all the criticism that has sometimes been leveled against him by the jazz cognoscenti who wish he would put on blackface, Brubeck is a musical genius who has had a transformative influence on jazz that rivals that of a Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Duke Ellington. His particular impact has been threefold: opening jazz to broader influences, including "classical" ones; helping to establish the richness of expression in the so-called cool, or understated, "West Coast" sound; and expanding the rhythm and meter of the jazz idiom. The miracle is that he has continued to do so for over a half century, and this concert was full of interesting and novel ideas. Although physically a bit fragile in his gait, Brubeck still plays up a storm on the piano. And he keeps pushing the musical envelope. Moreover, his seasoned group goes on the journey with him. In their "own sweet way," they elevated the music to new heights of virtuosity, swing, and creativity.
Brubeck obviously enjoys taking traditional tunes and toying with them in novel ways. Thus, on "The Sunny Side of the Street" and "Margie," he made the most of the ragtime, stride and boogie woogie rhythms he loves, while taking them well past Thelonious Monk into a hypermodern stratosphere, where he and the group made rich use of polyrhythms, unusual meters, and sudden shifts in timing to offer a virtual grand relativistic tour of the geometry of time that no doubt Albert Einstein would have appreciated. Brubeck knows how to bend and trick time into doing what he wants, and he has always managed to put together groups that can do this too. Brubeck's ingenuity was complemented on "Margie" by a spectacular bebop solo during which altoist Bobby Militello invoked Bird, and a beautiful bowed bass solo by the master, Michael Moore, whose playing at times was stunningly evocative of the iconic jazz violinist, Stephane Grapelli.
Next, Brubeck showed himself to be equally at home interpreting ballads with a rare combination of simplicity and complexity inspired by his classical mentor, Darius Milhaud. In his "Theme For June," he began with a reflective solo that was sharply contrasted with a brassy saxophone solo by Militello, followed by some Bach-like fugal choruses with fine rhythmic help from the brilliant Randy Jones on drums (once the generating plant in Maynard Ferguson's most rock-oriented big band), and ending with a romantic-style piano solo in the manner of Chopin or Rachmaninoff. What can't they do? "Crescent City Stomp" took a standard blues progression and repeated it to a near-death experience, perhaps milking it a bit beyond what it is worth. But the piece was redeemed by Militello's double-time sax solo, which broke up the encroaching ennui with an infectious excitement.
A piece, apparently entitled "Sleep" (for reasons which only he could explain, Brubeck did not announce the names of the tunes; this reviewer had to make inquiries about some of them afterwards), began with a Debussy-like impressionist solo by Brubeck which soon evolved into a duet with Militello on flute, while Jones used felt-tipped tympani mallets to enhance the impressionist feel. Another gorgeous bass solo by Moore and a beautiful flute and bowed bass duet added to the haunting quality of what virtually could have been the slow movement of a symphony. Another reflective ballad, "Elegy," done entirely by Brubeck as a piano solo, served as a fine "postlude" and commentary.
Returning to ragtime flourishes, the quartet's rendition of "These Foolish Things" had an air of sentimentality, representing a "spoof" on this timeless standard, further echoing the past via Militello's soloing in a style reminiscent of Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster.
The set concluded withwhat else would you expect?"Take Five." This version clearly marked this quartet's difference from the earlier Brubeck group, being more energetic and less "cool" than the popular original version which still frequently airs on radio. Fireworks ensued when Randy Jones let loose on drums and drove the audience (if you'll pardon the expression) "wild." It was natural to want to compare Jones to Joe Morello, but the successor took his own unique path, somewhat suggestive of Gene Krupa on LSD. As a result, "Take Five" will never be the same for this listener.
The audience, understandably aroused by this stellar performance, insisted by their applause and cheers on an encore. The group came out, apparently to indulge in another excursion, but simply did a brief version of the traditional "Lullaby, and goodnight..." Brubeck does Brahms, which got them off the hook consistent with the kind and gentle manner which this remarkable musician has maintained over these many years. There were no complaints.