Richie Cole: A Wiser But Still Swingin' Soul


Sign in to view read count
[Richie Cole] may be the one musician not afraid to put the 'Jazz Age' back into jazz.
"Madness in great ones must not unwatch'd go." (William Shakespeare)

Alto saxophonist Richie Cole is the last of a breed—a fast and competitive musical gunslinger acquiring near-legendary status for his willingness to demonstrate his command of Charlie Parker's bebop language by taking on all comers at any speed—Billy the Kid packing an alto instead of a revolver.

The ready availability of Cole's recorded shoot-out with the indomitable Sonny Stitt (Just In Case You Forgot How Bad He Really Was, 1981/2003), in which the challenger pretty much holds his own, has in recent years helped increase Cole's visibility with a younger generation of jazz followers, who consequently should not find it surprising that he recorded with two additional heirs presumptive to Bird's throne—the current reigning king, Phil Woods (Side By Side, 1980), and former royalty, Art Pepper (no doubt Cole's schedule would have accommodated alto prodigy Francesco Cafiso had he been available).

Free-spirited, undisciplined, almost reckless because too young to know better, Cole at one time seemed to resemble Pepper who, like Roy Hobbs in The Natural, vowed he'd be the best there ever was (at least since Parker). Pepper, moreover, was the ultimate risk-taker, incapable of separating music- making, especially when testing himself against his peers, from fast thrills and ever-present danger. After getting badly burned in his first recorded showdown with Stitt, Pepper demanded a rematch (The Hollywood All-Star Sessions, 1979/2001), on which to some ears, at least, he got his revenge.

Even before the passing of Stitt and Pepper, Richie Cole had acquired sufficient fame to be mentioned alongside the all-time jazz greats on Manhattan Transfer's popular vocalese recording of Coleman Hawkins' solo on "Body And Soul" (Extensions, 1979). And less than a decade prior to this recording, Cole had acquired instant recognition for his work with Buddy Rich's loudest, most rock-infused big band (Keep The Customer Satisfied, 1970), becoming the second main reason for catching this especially blistering edition of the inflammatory drummer's explosive large ensembles. For much of the 1970s, he moved from one happening scene to another, most notably an extended association, 1975-1979, with the father of vocalese (and composer of those lyrics for the melody James Moody once played and now can't stop singing), Eddie Jefferson. Cole's relationship with the jazz singing legend was close, personally as well as musically, and it's unlikely anyone was more shaken by Jefferson's shocking, tragic end than the young altoist.

In another era a musician of Cole's skills might simply pick up the pieces and move on. But Jazz At The Philharmonic was long gone, the calls for participants in cutting contests such as those sponsored by Chicago's Joe Segal were scarcer than ever, and the C&W, funk and fusion, Motown and disco music of the 1970s was as alien to bebop as the sounds of new age. Gradually, Cole regrouped, frequently adapting his playing to what was popular. Of course, there were mis-steps if not debatable calls. To those Cole detractors who acknowledge his pyrotechnical brilliance but deride his playing as "flashy" and given to occasionally gimmicky, attention-getting rhythmic constructions, he hardly helped his cause, at least in the minds of the jazz elitists, by recording with Boots Randolph (Yakety Madness, 1982), the late pop saxophonist who became inseparable in the public's mind from the "yakety sax" tag.

But in retrospect Cole was finding his niche if not defining his musical identity. Although not yet one of the senior citizens of jazz, the evidence of his discography, beginning in the early 1980s and extending to his newest recording, suggests he has definitely matured as a musician while retaining the fire in the belly that has always made him such a superlative player.

Richie Cole
Richie Cole Meets Art Pepper: A Piece Of Jazz History
Jazz Excursion Records

A reissue of a 1982 meeting recorded just months prior to Pepper's death and originally titled Return To Alto Acres, this is a well-played, poised yet spirited session that, while not rising to the level of a gladiatoral encounter, is a thoroughly enjoyable program likely to invite numerous replayings. The main question a listener might have going in is whether the proceedings will be conducted under the challenger Cole's or the legend Pepper's terms. Will the former acquire some gravitas or will the latter lighten up a bit?

In the case of Sonny Stitt, a proud and combative player always true to a systematic code, there's never a doubt about whose terms must be met, implicit or otherwise. Arguably the playing of both Cole and Pepper is at its highest level on their respective recorded encounters with this singular musician, whose playing represented a kind of gold standard even before the passing of Parker. Ironically, it would be some of the younger Stitt's own overcompensating ways—for example, playing alto, tenor and baritone on the same tune without yielding a nanosecond—that might give similar ideas to the next bebop speedster.

Cole pretty much has his way on the meeting with Pepper, though the latter sounds fully cooperative and supplies a strong complementary voice, immediately apparent on the tight and polished ensemble choruses. Cole's opener, a variant on "I Got Rhythm" changes, finds the pair playing unison on the head, with the leader on baritone and the guest on clarinet. On both this tune and "Palo Alto Blues" Cole's baritone is a happy revelation: the inherent properties of the big horn reduce glibness and enforce greater attention to melodic logic; at the same time, the player's irrepressible nature brings lightness and humor seldom heard from the often ponderous instrument.

The ballad—"The Things We Did Last Summer"—is all Cole's on alto, with more than a trace of Johnny Hodges in the bending of tones and of the late Sonny Criss in the tightly-spinning vibrato. The co-leaders finally square off on their primary instruments on Art's Opus #2, a medium-tempo minor-key blues in 6/8 that winds up belonging as much to Cole as the composer. The latter opens up with a jabbing, lurching solo before handing it over to the younger player, who dabbles with the stop-and-go precedent before kicking it into overdrive. Cole switches to tenor but remains in high gear for a flame-thrower, "A & R," this time going first with a solo that manages to traverse the territory between the disparate tenor styles of Boots Randolph and John Coltrane.

The closer, "Broadway," offers the best chance to hear the two altoists go head-to-head for any length of time, with Pepper on the verge of expressing the raw emotion that characterizes his best performances. Throughout, the rhythm section, featuring Roger Kellaway's aggressive piano solos, maintains a bright and heated flame, fueled by Bob Magnusson's fluid bass and stirred by the redoubtable, always tasteful Billy Higgins on drums.

Richie Cole
The Man With The Horn
Jazz Excursion Records

It's hard to recall a musician who has come raging out of the gate with as much abandon as Cole for the first solo on this session's opener, a way up(too up)-tempo version of Charlie Parker's "Confirmation." He romps through several choruses, executing every bebop lick in sight before playing some ascending trills and like a hummingbird spiralling into the stratosphere. Yet it's not the leader but the pianist, Bobby Enriquez, who might qualify as the showboat on this 1981 date, an archived tape salvaged by Cole for a probably-deserved release. Enriquez is such a physical player (is he karate-chopping the keys?) that Bruce Forman's tasteful guitar solo between the two musical athletes amounts to welcome refereeing, giving the listener a chance to catch his breath before the next whirlwind round.

The eclectic program all but defies description, an "over-the-top mix that out-does a contemporaneous Cole/Enriquez meeting issued under the latter's name as The Wildman Meets The Madman (GNP, 1981). Surprisingly, Cole sails serenely and relatively conservatively through a string of golden oldies: "Adios," "Penthouse Serenade" and (no this is not a misprint) "Peg Of My Heart", which the altoist transforms from snooze-piece for harmonica into a raunchy burlesque routine. On the other hand, Bud Johnson's soul classic, "Save Your Love For Me," is reclaimed from Motown monotony and redeployed as a slick showcase for Marshall Hawkins' grooving bass work, with a tip of the hat to Slam Stewart.

The speed governor is removed in time for Duke Pearson's resilient jazz standard, "Jeannine," introduced by alto and guitar harmonizing in thirds followed by the same order of solos as "Confirmation." Again Enriquez pulls off stunts that would upstage the pianisms of a Hiromi Uehara let alone the two soloists who precede him. In the liner notes, Cole relates that he discovered the pianist in Hawaii serving as musical director and accompanist for the iconic albeit soporific Don "Tiny Bubbles" Ho. Can things get any weirder?

Don't bet against it. Enriquez, a one-man orchestra, next dives into Richard Rodgers' biggest, most symphonic piece, "Slaughter On Tenth Avenue," tackling it unaccompanied and with a concert-hall gusto that might make Oscar Levant envious and Fats Waller sound comparatively anemic. He practically condenses a history of jazz as well as legit piano styles into the performance, including the "picturesque" accompaniment once supplied by nickelodian players during the days of silent film.

The session closes with another burner, an Enriquez-Cole variant on a minor blues, leaving the listener exhausted, not a little limp and somewhat incredulous. What have we just heard—the most spirited ensemble in jazz or the hottest musical act in Vegas? Categorization aside, it's all exhilarating, madcap fun from virtuoso musicians with a repertory as unlimited as their technique. Recommended to all but stuffed shirts and those over-anal types who take their jazz too seriously. (On second thought, this session may be just what the doctor ordered.)

Richie Cole
Back On Top
Jazz Excursion Records

Fast-forward almost fifteen years. Richie Cole is back with his "Alto Madness Orchestra," and no doubt many who haven't actually heard the group will assume it's one of those multiple-alto, one- upsmanship affairs on which Phil Woods takes on challengers young and old (Four Altos, Prestige 1957; Alto Summit, Fantasy, 1996). Assume again. The only alto player is Cole—in fact, he's the only composer (almost) and arranger on the ten tracks of this date, amounting to a new career phase as well as a tour de force for the multifaceted, energetic, and inarguably prolific leader (some estimates have credited Cole with as many as 5000 compositions, placing him within striking distance of the record-setting 8000 plus songs credited to the late Steve Allen!).

If you haven't heard Alto Madness, think of orchestrations predating Gil Evans; instead, conjure up the Count Basie, Woody Herman or Buddy Rich bands compressed to septet size and playing exclusively swinging charts. Or recall the Dave Pell Octet with arrangements by a Marty Paich or Bill Holman except with the musicians exchanging their bottles of Schlitz for cans of Red Bull. And clear your mind of "Gentleman's Club" dance tables in favor of the old stage runways graced by the likes of Tempest Storm and Blaze Starr.

Composed of alto, tenor, trumpet, trombone plus rhythm (for piano, substitute guitar), the band hits the ground running with an infectious shuffle-feel opener, "Remembering Oliver Nelson." Cole's alto soon emerges out of the tightly orchestrated, crisply executed ensemble for a string of tasteful choruses flavored by accompanying counter-motives played by the ensemble. Wisely, Cole doesn't attempt to emulate Nelson the alto player but captures the multi-talented musician's spirit as a composer and arranger, managing to slip in cleverly scored, seamless allusions to Nelson classics like "Stolen Moments" and "Hoe-down."

"Jazz Excursion" is a slightly more up-tempo modal swinger, with tenor saxophonist Billy Ross engaging the leader on some spirited exchanges underscored, once again, by written figures for the entire ensemble, which shows it can execute a sforzando to perfection. "A Walk In The Park" returns to the groove of the opener, but by now—despite the leader's distribution of solos, clever harmonic transpositions, and alternation between bristling bebop ("Back on Top") and burlesque bravado ("Relaxin' At The Candlelight")—there's an unmistakable sense of textural sameness. The general listener may wish to tackle this session in a couple of sittings; on the other hand, musicians seeking to offer a big-band sound at a competitive price or educators despairing of filling their sections with capable players will probably welcome not only more recordings by Alto Madness but a chance to purchase some of these Cole charts.

The closer on the date, the standard "Portrait Of Jenny," brings new life to the subject of the painting. By the time the altoist has finished with the tune, interweaving strains of "The Bad And The Beautiful" and "Smoke Gets In Your Eyes," even listeners familiar with the song are apt to hear it afresh. It's a performance and arrangement, moreover, that exert an appeal comparable to the session's opening track.

Richie Cole And The Alto Madness Orchestra
Risë's Rose Garden
Jazz Excursion Records

Recorded under the most personally trying circumstances this latest offering by Richie Cole's Alto Madness Orchestra is not only testimony to the leader's talents and resilient spirit but a touching tribute to the lady who inspired it. Although an extended two-CD release, the program "feels" no longer than the prior single-disc release thanks to more textural variety, a more equal balance between Cole originals and familiar standards, and the inclusion of players like guitarist Victor Juris, trumpeter Jack Walrath, and pianist Don Friedman, whose instrument is brought forward while the sound of the wind ensemble is less "hot" in the mix.

Although Cole's name is frequently treated as a synonym for "bebop," his musical scope is at once more historic and broad than he's given credit for. There's more than a hint of Vienna in the opening title number and of a Platters doo-wop triple-meter in "Garden In The Moonlight," which closes out the first disc with Cole's alto reaching for the moon. To listen to Cole's conceptions and executions is not merely to revisit Bird but to rethink and re-experience "sentiment," a word that these days is likely to be associated with something negative, best avoided at all costs.

Often it's as if the soloist/composer/arranger is reminding us that if we find ourselves embarrassed by an emotional expression that permeated American popular culture—in literature, cinema, and music—until the 1960s, the "problem" may lie less with the expression than our own attitudes. So self- conscious are we of our sophisticated and presumably superior modernity, that it is we who may be the losers, severing the ties with our own deepest affections and inviting the ill effects of repression. When sentiment and melodrama, once the community's celebration of human emotion, suddenly fall into widespead disfavor, passion's only outlet is hysteria.

Which is not to say this session is all moonlight and roses (though it's fun to imagine how a Cole arrangement of the Lawrence Welk favorite might sound). The altoist's extended solo on Harry Warren's ever-fresh tribute to singularity, "There Will Never Be Another You," is a model of understatement and melodic integrity while his own "Nightfall," a subtle, compelling melody propelled by Ray Mantilla's evocative percussion, casts an exotic spell while eliciting memorable solos from all hands, with trumpeter Nathan Ekland and trombonist Rick Stepton summoning up the spirits of Art Farmer and Dicky Wells respectively.

The second disc, like the first, demonstrates Cole's unashamed eclecticism, though listeners who assume "Blueberry Hill" is strictly Fats Domino territory may be surprised to discover the tune in the discographies of both Louis Armstrong and trumpeter Clifford Brown. The playing of the Alto Madness Orchestra is especially free-flowing on this disc with the addition of trumpeters Chris Juades and Jack Walrath, the latter kicking the intensity up a notch and engaging in some fiery exchanges with Ekland while drummer Wayne Dunton applies the whip to the ensemble and Friedman continues to shine as both accompanist and soloist.

All the same, the central role and guiding spirit of the leader, who credits his wife for inspiring these and many more compositions and arrangements, is pervasive. Cole may be the lone alto player on the date, but there's no containing his form of creative madness. He may be the one musician not afraid to put the "Jazz Age" back into jazz. The rose garden is not only a loving gift but an inarguable source of inspiration for the ever fertile and productive mind of this fascinating musician.

Tracks and Personnel

Richie Cole Meets Art Pepper: A Piece Of Jazz History

Tracks: Return To Alto Acres; Things We Did Last Summer; Art's Opus #2; A & R; Palo Alto Blues; Broadway; Art's Opus #2 (Alternate Take).

Personnel: Richie Cole: alto, tenor and baritone saxophone; Art Pepper: alto saxophone and clarinet; Roger Kellaway: piano; Bob Magnusson: bass; Billy Higgins: drums.

The Man With The Horn

Tracks: Confirmation; Adios; Penthouse Serenade; New York Afternoon; Peg Of My Heart; Save Your Love For Me; Jeannine; Easy Street; Man With A Horn; Slaughter On Tenth Avenue; Um Ummm.

Personnel: Richie Cole; alto & tenor saxophone; Bobby Enriquez: piano; Bruce Forman: guitar; Marshall Hawkins: bass: Scott Morris: drums.

Back On Top

Tracks: Remembering Oliver Nelson; Jazz Excursion; A Walk In The Park; Uncle Freddy; Home Town; Don't Misunderstand; Back On Top; Relaxin' At The Candlelight; I Love Bebop; Portrait Of Jenny.

Personnel: Richie Cole: alto saxophone; Billy Ross: tenor saxophone; Rick Stepton: trombone; Nathan Eklund: trumpet; Andrei Riabov: guitar; Rick Crane: bass; Wayne Dunton: drums.

Risë's Rose Garden

Tracks: CD1: Risë's Rose Garden; There Will Never Be Another You; Nightfall; Canadian Sunset; Lost January; First Bloom; A Night in Toyama; Speak Low; Garden In The Moonlight (49:11). CD2: Town Without Pity; Three East; Ewing Cha Cha; Peggy's Blue Skylight; Beyond The Sea; Mr. Everything; Blueberry Hill; Psycho-la-Tron; Now I Have Everything (46:10).

Personnel: CD1: Richie Cole: alto saxophone; Bobby Howell: tenor saxophone; Nathan Eklund (1,3,4,8), Chris Jaudes (5-7,9): trumpet; Rick Stepton: trombone; Vic Juris (2,5-7,9): guitar; Don Friedman: piano; Rick Crane: bass; Wayne Dunton: drums; Ray Mantilla (3): percussion. CD2: Cole: alto saxophone; Howell: tenor saxophone; Eklund (2-4,7,8), Jaudes (1,5,6), Jack Walrath (2-4, 7): trumpet; Stepton: trombone; Juris (1,5,6): guitar; Friedman: piano; Crane: bass; Dunton: drums; Mantilla (3): percussion.

Post a comment



The Montreux Years
John McLaughlin
Long Way Home
Dimitris Angelakis
Potsa Lotsa XL & Youjin Sung
Anthony Coleman and Brian Chase


Get more of a good thing

Our weekly newsletter highlights our top stories and includes your local jazz events calendar.