Hilary Kole: Versatile, Sweet and Jazzy

R.J. DeLuke By

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A lot of people think I'm kind of as cross between jazz and cabaret. Or cabaret and musical theater and jazz. To me, it's finding the music that I have something to bring to. I'm in love with standards.
When Hilary Kole sings, she can become one of the ideal subjects for the "what is jazz singing" discussion that has gone on for decades. She sings clear and cleanly, with a sure tone and an attractive sound. She's done cabaret and her voice is perfectly suited for it. But she sings with small jazz groups and has more than a feel for that as well. And she's stood before big bands and presented jazz sure and enchanting.

But that jazz thing. Frank Sinatra was. No he wasn't. Tony Bennett is. No he's not. This guy. That gal. It can get to the equivalent of barroom talk about sports personalities. So Kole, who has been developing a jazz singer's pedigree since her early days studying classical piano and composing classical music, isn't in bad company.

And one thing for sure—one good thing—is that it's nothing she loses sleep over.

"We could talk all day about that," she says with a glistening laugh. Kole has brains as well as beauty, her comments and feelings genuine and heartfelt. She's eloquent and erudite. Very serious about her career, but doesn't seem to take herself too seriously and isn't distracted by music discussions that, in the end, are immaterial. "I consider myself a singer of popular music. I just happen to love the music of 1918 to 1950 most of the time. I love to surround myself with the best musicians in the world and for me, that's jazz musicians. So I am incredibly inspired by jazz musicians. I work with jazz musicians. I do a lot of improvisation when I'm doing live shows.

"A lot of people think I'm kind of as cross between jazz and cabaret. Or cabaret and musical theater and jazz. To me, it's finding the music that I have something to bring to. I'm in love with standards. I love singing those kinds of songs. I don't know," she pauses with a chuckle. "I consider myself ... I sing with jazz musicians, I sing at jazz clubs and I'm turned on by jazz music. That's where I'll leave it. I'll let everybody else judge."

She's from a musical family is influenced by Peggy Lee, Julie London, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. "I'm constantly trying to sharpen my skills in that idiom," she notes.

If her first recording, the lush Haunted Heart (Justin Time, 2009), wasn't evidence of breezy swing and jazz phrasing, produced by John Pizzarelli, then the stripped down You Are There (Justin Time, 2010) should capture people. It's an intriguing and challenging project, pairing Kole in duets with many of the superior pianists in jazz: Hank Jones; Cedar Walton; Kenny Barron; Dave Brubeck; Benny Green; Steve Kuhn; and others. The idea came though her association with Oscar Peterson, though the piano legend does not appear on the recording.

For a singer to get into sophisticated tunes with just a pianist, it can be like a trapeze artist going without a net. Except her partners are some of the masters, and they provide sumptuous cushion for Kole's sweet voice. Kole fits in beautifully. And she's effusive about her appreciation for each pianist and for the special opportunity to be able to record with them.

"To me, it was an amazing experience. It's something that has really changed how I sing, I think. In a significant way. It was like a four-year master class with the greatest pianists in the world," she says.

Gems include "If I Had You" and "But Beautiful" with Jones, "Softly As In a Morning Sunshine" with Green, "Two For The Road" with Kuhn and "Every Time We Say Goodbye" with Walton. All the selections shine. Freddy Cole even sings with Kole, as well as playing piano, on the warm "It's Always You." Brubeck plays his own "Strange Meadowlark," from the 50-year-old classic, Time Out (Columbia, 1959). The project was pulled off beautifully, even if it took a few years to finish. It's worth it.

"Everything counts. Every single thing," she says of singing with just piano. "At Nola Studios, one of the great old-time studios, you actually can't see the pianist. I was in an isolation booth and the pianist was in that wonderful studio. It's actually Errol Garner's Steinway piano (on the CD). Every track was recorded at Nola, with the exception of Dave Brubeck. He happened to be in Florida and we had to fly down for that. You have to really breathe with the other person. The other cool thing about the record, for piano lovers, is they get to hear the great solo artists and the great jazz guys doing a different thing and see how well they do it. They all accompany so well. It's a great learning thing for anybody who wants to become a master pianist. It's a wonderful thing ; for me to be a part of this was really amazing."

Communication is key in jazz, particularly in a duet setting. "That's why I love this music so much. As long as you're speaking the same language with these songs, you can go anywhere. That was made clear to me each and every time. There were certain songs I had never, ever sung all the way before. I had never sung 'Every Time We Say Goodbye' before," she explains. "I had never sung 'Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise.' Most of these songs were not in my standard repertoire of songs that I would perform. They're standard tunes everyone knows, but I've never really performed them before. So I was learning in the studio as this was all happening. It was a little overwhelming, I do have to say.

"A lot of times, especially after meeting Dave Brubeck and Hank Jones and Michel Legrand and Kenny Barron ... to play with those guys, I definitely had to psyche myself up a little bit. As soon as I got in, they made it so comfortable and easy. They were only after the best take. They only wanted to make me comfortable. That was really wonderful."

The idea for the project started about five years ago. Peterson was playing at Birdland, where Kole performed a lot. She was helping the pianist, then using a wheelchair, between sets and they became good friends. Kole also traveled to Canada to see Peterson, and when he returned to Birdland the next year, he asked Kole to sing with him. The resulting "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" suffered a bit from lack of rehearsal time. "He played beautifully, but the band wasn't used to accompanying a singer. He got off the stage and said, 'I owe you one.'"

Gianni Valenti, owner of Birdland, quickly suggested they record together and the musicians wanted to do it immediately. Jim Czak of Nola Studios also happened to be in the club, and the studio schedule was promptly cleared for the following day. Four tracks were cut over the course of a few hours, with no rehearsal and no sheet music. But it was enough for a whole record. Gianni liked the way Kole was showcased with just piano and suggested the idea of contacting other jazz pianists. Jones was one of them, and two of four tracks recorded are used on You Are There.

"We did two sessions," reveals Kole. "One about six months after the Oscar tracks and then we did them much more recently. In the meantime, I had recorded Haunted Heart. So this whole record, the duets record, took about four years, from the time with Oscar—those are recordings that are not on this CD. We decided they [the tracks with Peterson] were so special we just want to keep those separate and we're going to release them at later date." Other pianists were recruited, the last being Brubeck.

"It's been an incredible journey for me, to be able to work with and sing with these great pianists. Every one of them is different. The thing I love about it as a musician is that you can hear the different styles within each context. You can hear Kenny Barron being Kenny Barron when he does 'Lush Life.' You can hear Freddy Cole. The fluidity of Michel Legrand when he accompanies a singer. It was a big challenge and a concept that Gianni and I both came up with, inspired by the Oscar tracks."

Not only was it a challenge, but a great musical experience, one that gave Kole the opportunity to meet great musicians and deal with them on personal level. That's something she values.

"When I was in the studio with Oscar it was such a surreal experience because ... I'm as ambitious as any of the singers, but that's something you don't think in your wildest dreams you're ever going to do. In a way, I was unprepared and went through it not really nervous. It was so easy because he was so wonderful and he put me at ease ... We were winging some of my favorite songs, some of his favorite songs. And I have to tell you, each and every artist was like that with me.

"With every single one of them, they were so professional and into the music and into doing this project. They all wanted to listen to each other's tracks. They were all interested. At one time Hank and Michel Legrand ... Michel was late and Hank was early for the studio session, so they ended up playing piano, four hands, and talking to each other, and listening in on each other's session," she says, her voice still injected with a sense of excitement.

"Nearly all of them were done without any rehearsal. The only rehearsal we had at all was maybe playing it through once or twice before we started rolling tape. And most of them were done in complete takes. 'Lush Life' [Kenny Barron] we did twice. I was really happy with the way both of them came out. We tried to keep that spontaneity. I wanted to do an old-fashioned jazz record where you just went in, you were prepared, and whatever happened, you wanted capture that freshness and that magic that happens only in the studio ... I wanted to use songs that everybody knows and loves, that the pianists knew. They didn't have to read a chart. They didn't have to transpose. Just so we could get right to the music. We didn't have to worry about the mechanics of everything."

Hilary Kole, performing with John Pizzarelli
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