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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."

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