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

"But absolutely, it was a huge thrill for me, to be able to get to know these guys on a personal level and get to work with them. To get to have dinner with Dave Brubeck and his wife. To get to see him and sing his composition ['Strange Meadowlark']. That's the other thing I was excited about. Then I found out after we decided to do it that he hadn't recorded it in 50 years. He was so excited because I wanted to do that song," says Kole, adding, "Then we were so lucky. We were in the studio recording 'Strange Meadowlark' and as he was warming up his fingers he started playing, randomly, 'These Foolish Things.' Gianni ran in and said 'That's one of my favorite songs.' I said it was one of my favorite songs too. I used to sing it all the time at the Rainbow Room [New York City]. He suggested I sing it with Dave. ... Of course Gianni goes right into the studio and says, 'Hey Dave, you want to record it?' Dave looks at me and goes, 'C'mon.' So, that was a completely spontaneous recording of 'These Foolish Things.' It's one of my favorite songs and one of my favorite takes on the record. Just how it came together in a very loving and friendly way was wonderful."

"To be able to sing with Michel, his own composition ['How Do You Keep the Music Playing?'] ... Working with Monty Alexander is hysterical. Freddy [Cole] is wonderful. Nobody phrases like Freddy. I wanted a track with him singing. To be able to get to sing a duet with him was a real thrill for me."

Kole had her CD release party at Birdland in early August, but doesn't plan on touring by doing strictly duets. "I feel like, for a live presentation, it's kind of a hard record. It's more of a listening record than a touring record ... This kind of record is going to go throughout my career. It's more of a collector's thing than 'this is what she's doing this year' kind of thing," she says. But she's justly proud of the album. "For me, the hardest thing I have to do is listen to my own work," she says with humor. "I really feel proud of this. It kind of represents four years of me as a singer too. I did a lot of growing in the last four years, performing a lot and actually doing my other record while this was going on. Just being able to work with these guys, every track that I did made me better for the next one."

So for Kole, it's two solid jazz albums in the can and steady touring in jazz clubs and at festivals.

Haunted Heart was released first, even though the record company was high on the duets idea. But, "because I was an unknown at the time, they wanted to put out the quartet record first, so people could get a grasp of what I do. And then put out the duets record as a second record."

That record, and working with Pizzarelli, was also a fantastic experience for the singer. "He was," she says, laughing at the recollection. "It's amazing we got anything done at all. We did it in half the studio time that we thought we would need. He was wonderful. He gave me a lot of songs for the record. A lot of them I had been doing for years. But he gave me a lot of the swinging tunes like 'Deed I Do' and 'You For Me.' He had a nice clean concept. The thing I love about Haunted Heart is that it's a breezy, fun record to listen to because we had so much fun doing it. We were laughing through it and having such a good time. My entire band said to me at one time or another that it was their favorite session they'd ever done because it was so easy. There was no pressure at all. I think that's what John excels at. It was great. He's producing the next one as well."

She adds, "For me, as a singer, to work with a producer who can perform at that level and who is a musician at that level, made all the difference for me. I'm a musician first. If you're going to talk to me [in the studio], it is so much more helpful if you can talk in musical terms. So we connected in a good way. He would play guitar and I would play piano and we would figure it all out. The we would do it. I like the idea of having a producer that was also a musician."

Music has always been Kole's focus. Her father was a singer on Broadway and she had a classical piano upbringing. She heard American standards and, naturally, musical theater music growing up. "It was the standards that really spoke to me," she says. "I think, because I was a composer from an early age, I really liked the idea that you could sing a song different each time. That was something that I loved. Improvisation was spontaneous composition. That was always exciting. More exciting than doing the same show eight times a week, the exact same way. Although, with the right show I would like to do that, as well, one day. But where my heart lies is in the spontaneous expression of a live jazz club. That kind of experience. For me, that's where I live."

She attended The Walden School, a private summer music camp in New Hampshire, where she was composing for string quartets and woodwind quintets. Then she received a scholarship to the jazz commercial composition program at the Manhattan School of Music in New York City, was studying with Manny Albam, Ed Green and Rich DeRosa. She started to write big band charts and eventually made it into the jazz choir. There she worked with Jackie Presti, a noted teacher and performer around New York City. Kole quickly got acclimated to singing, and Presti got her an audition at the Rainbow Room in Manhattan. Things moved fast, and serendipitously, from there.

She jokes that she steered headlong into singing "When I realized you can't make a living writing for string quartets ... I was so lucky to get that first job at the Rainbow Room. You get addicted. The thing about composition is that it's very isolated. You sit in a room by yourself. You're wiring all this music. Then if you're lucky, you get to hear it once or twice. With singing, you get that instant gratification that's really nice. Again, when you're singing in the jazz realm, you're also using your composition chops. It was that combination platter that I loved so much. Also, I'll get on the piano and play one or two songs per set. That's where I bring everything together. I'm playing and I'm improvising and singing at the same time. For me, that's the ultimate."

At the Rainbow Room, she says, "I was 20 years old. All of a sudden I had a gig singing in New York City up at Rockefeller Center six nights a week for five-and-a-half hours a night. And going to school during the day. I was really lucky. I was a big band singer. It was a 12-piece band. It wasn't a full big band, but it was all traditional pop/jazz music. I got to learn the way all of the great jazz singers, the way Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan learned. I learned on the bandstand. I had wonderful horn players. It was a dream job. It's a shame they don't have more places like that for young singers to learn. I had almost two years of constant work, which was amazing. I learned to hone my craft there. I learned hundreds of songs. It's stayed with me all these years."

She was also the youngest person to headline at the room. "It was an amazing experience. Then I would sneak through the kitchen and go into Rainbow and Stars (a larger room) and I would listen to Tony Bennett. I remember seeing John Pizzarelli. He had just made it big. And Bucky Pizzarelli. Ann Hampton Calloway. I would sneak back and forth, then go back and do my sets. It was like being in a movie. Of course I thought every gig in New York City was just like that," she says chuckling. "A rude awakening when that room closed."

Even when it closed, Kole's career continued its ascent.

"I've been very lucky. The nice thing about New York City and about this music is that one thing always leads you into something else. You may not know it. I was able to have the job at the Rainbow Room for about two years. During that time I met a wonderful male singer by the name of Christopher Gines. And he said, 'We should do a cabaret show.' And I said, 'I don't do cabaret. I'm not a cabaret singer.' Then the room closed. And I called him because I needed a gig. We ended up writing a show called 'Our Sinatra.' It ended up opening up at the Algonquin in 1999. Then ran off Broadway for about six years. So I was very lucky with that. It did two national tours and six or seven productions nationwide all over the place. That kind of got me into the next level."

One of the productions was at Birdland, which is where she met Valenti and eventually started her solo career. But with Comstock, Gines—and prodding from Valenti—she also co-wrote a show on songs made popular by Fred Astaire. "We started doing research, and we realized Fred Astaire kind of handpicked the American songbook. It was Astaire who did the original versions of a lot of these songs, and then Frank Sinatra took them—'Night and Day' or 'A Foggy Day'— and made them into the hits that we know them as. But Fred Astaire was really an important figure. That ran for about two years. I was great to collaborate again. I love singing with other singers. It's a wonderful thing to be able to do that.

The Sinatra show is doing a revival through September 11, 2010, at the Algonquin in New York City.

Both shows did not involved original music. Kole did the vocal arrangements on standard tunes. Comstock did the piano arrangements. The trio collaborated on the script and putting the musical revue together.

Kole's solo career started at Birdland after the Astaire run. "I did a show on Marilyn and Allan Bergman lyrics and songs. From there I decided the theme thing for me was always interesting, but I really wanted to sing the songs that I loved," she says. "I started putting shows together. That's where I met John Pizzarelli, who also plays the room. He said, 'You need to put a record out.' I said, 'I'm looking for a producer.' He said, 'I'll produce it.' That's how that happened."

Using her compositional background, Kole came up with arrangements on songs for her debut release. ."What I did with Haunted Heart, and what I will do with all of my projects—the next project as well—is that I do all of the arrangements. That's where I can express myself compositionally. The title track, 'Haunted Heart,' was my original arrangement. I'm going to expand for the next record. It's going to be more horns and some strings and stuff like that. It's very important to me to express that part of me, musically."

While she may occasionally get involved in other singing projects, also important to her is jazz music, her associations with jazz musicians, and performing with that kind of freedom in jazz clubs.

"I love the challenge of it," she says with confidence. "Sometimes when people like to pigeonhole a singer, that's really tough. Because once lyric is involved, everything changes. To me, it's the music and the lyric that tells me where to go. That's the most important thing. A singer like Frank Sinatra or Tony Bennett or any of the great singers—even Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, I think they would say the same thing. Sarah Vaughan was famous for saying, 'Don't call me a jazz singer. A jazz singer means I play in the basement.' If she doesn't want to be called a jazz singer, then I can be OK not being called a jazz singer.

"The thing I love about the jazz clubs, especially in New York City, is that it's a really intimate setting. People are right there and they can see how the music works, so to speak. That's a nice thing. I love playing pops concerts. I do that all the time too. And the big string orchestras are wonderful. But there's something very special about going into a club, especially one with a historical significance, and have people come there. You're all in it together. I love that."

In that regard, like all good jazz musicians, Kole feels she is continually learning and growing. It's an attitude that will serve this talented vocalist well.

"What was so wonderful talking to Hank Jones is that he was still learning. He still wanted to make the better take and to do better. He said this to me, 'When you stop wanting to do that, then stop playing.' That's why, I think, this music lives on. Because we're always searching for that better chord or that better note or that better interpretation. It's different every time. It's a constant challenge and it's special. That makes it so fun for me."

And fun for us.

Selected Discography

Hilary Kole, You Are There (Justin Time Records, 2010)

Hilary Kole, Haunted Heart (Justin Time Records, 2009)

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Hilary Kole

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