Friday, November 29, 2013

John Escreet Challenges the Senses with"Sabotage and Celebration"

Sabotage and Celebration WR4634 2013
John Escreet is a twenty-nine year old pianist originally hailing from Doncaster, England who has resided stateside since 2006. He studied at the Manhattan School of Music with the pianists Kenny Baron and Jason Moran. His album Consequences from 2008 was hailed by the New York Times’ Nate Chinen as
“a highly accomplished debut.” Mr. Escreet, now living in Brooklyn, has become an increasingly omnipresent part of the progressive music scene in New York. Besides leading his own groups, he can be heard in the piano chair on Jamie Baum’s fine new release In This Life and on  Alchemy  with  the progressive Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir El Saffar. I have been intrigued by the pianist's rapid development.

Mr. Escreet’s  Sabotage and Celebration is a complex and intriguing album that showcases the young pianist's increasing maturation as a composer. Like his playing, the album challenges the senses. It has moments of majestic, lyrical beauty, like the expansive “He Who Dares” and the melodic “Laura Angela,” as well as stretches of difficult, discordant free improvisations, like the aptly titled songs “Sabotage and Consequences,” “The Decapitator” or the jagged “Animal Style.” Oftentimes these elements are woven into the same composition creating jarring juxtapositions. Mr. Escreet's musical vocabulary is effective, creating aural images that relay ideas that he is trying to express. Harsh jabs at the piano, squealing honks of the saxophone or piercing squeals of a trumpet have all been used by Mr. Escreet to make his point. On this album he also deftly orchestrates both string and brass sections that create dramatic backdrops for his more expansive compositions, like “Beyond Your Wildest Dreams” and the aforementioned “He Who Dares.” The music swells organically creating a atmospheric surround  that allows for the eruptive solos and taut ensemble playing to soar.

Throughout it all, Escreet’s formidable technique as a pianist is allowed to blossom. He agilely creates passages that range from single note ruminations to explosive bursts. His effective use of the synchronous and dueling voices of saxophonists of David Binney and Chris Potter on “He Who Dares” create a magical interlude. Escreet can play with extraordinary beauty, resplendent with crescendos of sound that belie a classical background. Make no mistake about it, Mr. Escreet wishes to challenge the boundaries of the music he creates with an approach that seems to have one foot in the lyrical and one foot in the abstract. While I struggle with some of the ear assaulting dissonance of the abstract parts of his music at times,
as he continues in his maturation process, I find myself being able to appreciate his efforts more and more. On Sabotage and Celebration Mr. Escreet creates moments of magic that are all too rarely found in a great deal of modern jazz and for this he is an artist to be watched closely.

Personnel: John Escreet, piano, Fender Rhodes, Harpsichord;  David Binney, alto saxophone, soprano saxophone track 7; Chris Potter, tenor saxophone; Matt Brewer, bass, Jim Black, drums. Adam Rodgers, guitar track7; String Section : Fung Chern Hwei, violin; Annette Homann, violin; Hannah Levinson, Viola; Mariel Roberts, cello; Garth Stevenson, double bass; Brass Section: Shane Endsley, trumpet; Josh Rosemena, trombone. Vocals Louis Cole , Genevieve Artadi, Nina Greiger track 7.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Freddy Cole and Hilary Kole perform "Perfect Pairs" Series in Stamford' Palace Theatre

PERFECT PAIRS : Freddy Cole and Hilary Kole 

Freddy Cole photo Clay Walker 2007
Hilary Kole photo Bill Westmoreland

In a continuing effort to establish Stamford's beautiful Palace Theatre, as a serious venue competing for New York caliber entertainment, Darien resident and Stamford Center of the Arts board member, Lynn DiMenna had a revelation. If one entertainer could thrill an audience, why not try to pair artists in a synergistic way, doubling the chance for an interesting evening of music and entertainment. The Perfect Pairs series attempts to do just that and has been running at the Palace Theatre this fall season. 

DiMenna, herself a cabaret singer. was able to lure name talent to participate in this venture and fashion her vision into a reality. The series, started on September 7, 2013 bringing together the accomplished stride pianist/vocalist Judy Carmichael with the cabaret performer Steve Ross who the NY Times called "the suavest of all male cabaret performers." The second of four planned pairings occurred on October 18, 2013 when the Palace showcased vocalist/comedienne Christine Pedi and pianist/singer Johnny Rodgers. The two premiered their new show "Hearthrobs and Bombshells of the Movies," a time capsule spanning from 1920's through the present day, that celebrates the sophisticated men and ladies of the movies and the music they sang.
The program continues on Wednesday evening, November 13th, when the series will feature two entertainers that offer exciting possibilities, the singers Freddy Cole and Hilary Kole. 
Lynn DiMenna and Freddy Cole photo courtesy of Lynn. DiMenna

The veteran crooner/pianist Freddy Cole is a true master of the art of storytelling, and despite his personal distaste for labels, he is a standard bearer for the tradition of the great male jazz singers that have come before him. The lineage includes his brother Nat, Bing Crosby, Billy Eckstine, Frank Sinatra and Johnny Hartman to name a few.

Having grown up in a musical family and in the shadows of his famous older brother Nat "King" Cole, Freddy would not be deterred from a musical career of his own. He studied music at Julliard, receiving a master's degree from the New England Conservatory of Music. Now in his eighty-first year, his resonant baritone is still silken. He has a burnished warm tone with a refined delivery that has been honed over his years as a journeyman musician. His sensuous voice conjures up images of scotch, cigarettes, impeccably tailored threads and late nights with beautiful ladies clinging to your arms. When one hears Mr. Cole sing there is no mistaking the lineage, but he has taken great pains to create his own authentic style. A style  more in keeping with the phrasing and savior faire of Billy Eckstine, his self-professed greatest influence.

After years of leading the life of a working musician with moderate commercial success and over twenty albums as a leader, Mr. Cole's career had a rebirth starting in the late eighties. As he related to me in a recent interview, he was attending church in NY with his niece when a sermon struck him as particularly pertinent to his own situation. "It kind of touched me. I started going to try to right myself. You know going down the path..." "I was doing okay, I was playing around town, but I was on the same road. I was just going round and round in circles...  "You know there is an old saying 'If you don't know where your going you can take any road.' "Until you can get to where your peers respect what you do, that is when you are making progress." One day "When I was playing at Bradley's this one night, who came in but Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, George Coleman, you name it. You know, I said to myself they're all coming to see me! Never knowing that they respected what I did." That was about 1989. 

Since then Freddy has made some great recordings, culminating in his 2011 Grammy nominated album Freddy Cole Sings Mr. B in the category of "Best Jazz Vocal Album." Other fine and recent offerings include Talk to Me from 2011 and his latest This and That from this year.

As Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune so aptly wrote about a recent performance of the Cole quartet in the Second City " You simply don't encounter phrasing as seemingly nonchalant yet polished as this very often anymore." It is Mr. Cole's ability to make the storytelling so natural and to combine it with a superb sense of musicality and rhythm that makes him a treasure not to be missed. 

The chanteuse Hillary Kole brings her own special appeal. The young and beautiful Ms. Kole is a mysterious mix. Having been one of the youngest artists to have played the Rainbow Room-she was twenty-one when she got a one and one half year gig at this elegantly fabled venue singing in front of the Steven Scott Orchestra. Kole went on to perform a cabaret show based on the music of Frank Sinatra titled Our Sinatra at the famed Algonquin hotel. Later she and her group added an extended run at The Blue Angel. She was just about done with this project when the show landed a gig at the iconic jazz club Birdland. Her extended stay at the club led to an unlikely romance with the owner Gianni Valenti. Valenti introduced her to Oscar Peterson, who was playing what proved to be his last run at the club. It was here that she had the rare opportunity to play with Peterson's group on at least one occasion. Her debut album Haunted Heart was produced by guitarist John Pizzarelli and released in 2009 with esteemed radio host Jonathan Schwartz commenting in the liner notes "Her future is solid. Trust me on this."

She followed this up with her Cd You Are There, a series of duets that Valenti produced, pairing her with some of the best pianists in jazz. Hilary's clear vocals were heard on a series of standards with accompaniment by the likes of Dave Brubeck, Hank Jones, Michel Le Grand and Cedar Walton to name a few. It was on this album that she first worked with Freddy Cole. The two recorded the Jimmy Van Heusen song "It's Always You" in September of 2006.
Ms. Kole has since left Birdland and Mr. Valenti behind, but she continues to perform with one foot in cabaret and one foot in jazz. 

It should prove to be an interesting evening when the two meet once again on the Palace's Harman Stage for this "Perfect Pairs" performance. Mr. Cole's band of Randy Napoleon on guitar, Elias Bailey on bass and Curtis Boyd on drums should make for solid accompaniment for the two singers.  

Mr. Cole, the consummate professional, will undoubtedly be able to reach into his war chest of over five thousand songs to find ones most suitable for the occasion.  Ms. Kole will likely have to adapt on the fly, using her jazz chops as there will be no prearranged set list. Freddy prefers to "read" his audience before choosing the songs he will play on the bandstand on any given night. As he said when we spoke "Fortunately it is jazz music so it gives us a chance to do several things."  Ms Kole has a wonderful voice and an equally elegant stage presence. Her years of experience on the bandstands will undoubtedly help her navigate Mr. Cole's penchant for unpredictability.

It is music in the making that makes the "Perfect Pairs" series such an exciting concept. Two seemingly disparate entertainers coming together using the universal language of music and the extemporaneous nature of jazz as their common thread. It should make for an interesting evening of great entertainment. For more information on the show click here.

For a link to my full interview with Mr. Cole click here.

Friday, November 8, 2013

An Interview with Singer/Pianist Freddy Cole

NOVEMBER 7, 2013
Freddy Cole photo by Clay Walker

  • The singer/pianist Freddy Cole is a national treasure and at eighty-one years young he is still a masterful entertainer. He will be playing in a duet series with the singer Hilary Kole titled "Perfect Pairs" at the Palace Theatre in Stamford, CT on November 13, 2013. I was fortunate to be able to do an interview with Mr. Cole in preparation for an article on the show. Here is a transcript of that phone interview which was taken on November 7, 2013 :

NOJ: When did you first realize you wanted to make a career in music?

FC: You know, I never really thought about it. I never really distinguished between doing it or not because I have played the piano since I was five years old. So, I have always been involved with music. I was just fortunate enough for it to happen to me.

NOJ: You were in a musical family and were exposed to some of the most iconic figures in jazz history at an early age.

FC: That's true. Yeah, that's true.

NOJ: Who left the greatest impression on you and what instance can you recall had the greatest impact?

FC: I don't know. To pick out one would be kind of difficult, I have had wonderful experiences with Billy Eckstine, He was such a wonderful man. I played golf with him and went out for drinks with him, you know after I got old enough. I guess "B" would be the person I would have to choose.

NOJ: You had a great song you wrote "I'm Not My Brother I'm Me" which pretty much addresses the difficulty of living in the shadow of an iconic figure like your brother Nat ("King" Cole) and finding your own way. When do you feel the public was willing to accept you as an artist on your own terms?

FC: One time, I guess in '88 or '89, I was playing in NY and my niece and I went to church the next day- you know Natalie's younger sister- and I heard a sermon that kind of touched me. I started off going to try to right myself, you know going down the path of... in fact, there is an old saying that Papa used to say " If you don't know where you are going, any road will take you there."  You know? (Laughing)

NOJ: Yeah, I get it.

FC: Exactly. I was doing okay. I was playing around town, but I was on the same road. I was just going round and round in circles. Until you can get to where your peers respect what you do, that is when you are making progress. When I was playing at Bradley's this one night, who comes in but Carmen McRae, Betty Carter, George Coleman you name it. You know I said to myself, 'They're all coming to see me.' Never knowing that they respected me, what I did.

NOJ: When was this, about 1989?

FC: Yeah.

NOJ: according to John di Martino, who has worked with you and arranged and played on several of your albums, you have one of the most extensive repertoires in the industry to draw from, but you never make a setlist before a show. Is this true?

FC: Yes,  that's right. ..(John) has worked with me and is a great, great, player.

NOJ: How do you spontaneously choose what your going to play for any particular show?

FC: I don't know. It's hard to explain, 'cause I just zero in on it as I do the first song and then from there it's like boom, boom, boom know.

NOJ: So it's a visceral thing? You feel the audience and feel what they are looking for and then...

FC: Yeah, it's like all in the presentation, You have to present (properly) what you do.

NOJ: How do you look at lyrics when you sing a song?

FC: They tell a certain story. They tell a story about what you are talking about in the song. Some songs you like because of the chord changes or the melody, some songs you like because of the lyrics. You know when it's a great song you get them both together.

NOJ: One of your contemporaries, Tony Bennett, likes to pick songs ( with lyrics) that mean something to him.

FC: Exactly. I don't do anything that I don't like. Anything you hear me do, you know I like it.
I like some (songs) better than others, but I don't do any songs that I feel I have to butter up or doctor it up. No, I don't do that.

NOJ: You mentioned Billy Eckstine. You did a great album dedicated to him titled
Freddy Cole sings Mr. B  from 2010, which was nominated for a Grammy award in 2011 in the
category of "Best Jazz Vocal Album." Congratulations. What was it about Mr."B" and his music that still endures?

FC: He was so musical and he was a classy person. It is so hard to talk about him, he did so many things right. His selection of songs was impeccable. You know during that era nobody recorded more than "B" my brother Nat, Ella ( Fitzgerald), and Frank Sinatra. Those four people recorded more than anyone. Their music still stands.

NOJ: In reading about Billy Eckstine, he apparently credited Russ Columbo and Bing Crosby as two of his influences.

FC: Bing Crosby was a fantastic musician. People don't realize how great he was. His choice of songs, he did everything. There wasn't anything he couldn't do that was the same way "B" was.

NOJ: Were Crosby or Columbo too early to be an influence on you?

FC: I liked some of their songs. I listened to everything. I liked some of the songs that they did.
Some great tunes came out of there.

NOJ: You have developed a vocal style that is so naturally conversational and yet so intrinsically musical that it mesmerizes your audiences. Is this a result of playing gigs where the audience was not always attentive and you needed to grab them or did it just come naturally?

FC: (Laughing) well it's a little bit of both. I learned how to do this from watching and listening to Brazilian singers. I used to go to Brazil, I had a couple of hit records down in Brazil and I had a chance to meet and play with a lot of great musicians. They have a lot of great musicians down there who sadly will never be known up here. One thing always got me was the way they could really grab an audience. Elise Regina was a master at that. She was beautiful and she could sing, oh man! Maria Bethania was another.

NOJ: You have over twenty albums as a leader, starting with The Joke's On Me from 1952 all the way to your most recent album This and That. Do you have any favorites?

FC: Well, I like This and That.

NOJ: You will be playing a duet with the vocalist Hilary Kole at the Stamford Center for the Arts Palace Theatre on November 13, 2013. What do you have planned for this gig?

FC: I have no idea. I recorded with Hilary once before " It's Always You" (from Hilary's You Are There album of 2010), so I am sure we will do that one and what else I don't know.

NOJ: One of the interesting parts of the "Perfect Pairs" series at the Palace is that it brings together two artists from different backgrounds, usually jazz and cabaret. Ms. Kole has worked in cabaret and she also worked at Birdland and the Rainbow Room and you have a repertoire that includes a generous helping of Broadway tunes. Is this a common ground that you might explore?

FC: I don't know, not until I talk to her. I have to speak with her and see what direction she would like to go with and what we could do together. Fortunately, it's jazz music so it gives us a chance to do several things.

NOJ: What are the commonalities between jazz and cabaret?

FC: I am a firm believer in (not labeling)...people always have to have a title for something. Why can't they just let it be music? Or good music. Why does it have to be "Urban Contemporary Adult Music?" What is that? The "Nearness of You" or "Body And Soul" are the same I don't care what you playing at.

It's like Stevie Wonder's "Sunshine of My Life," that's music.I'm not putting any kind of music down, but why does it have to have a title? You have to say, oh this is a singer, he's this or she's that...I totally disagree with that.

NOJ: I guess when we writers try to describe and differentiate the many styles we hear we tend to use words to compare and to label, seemingly for clarity.

FC: Well they (writers) messed up a lot of careers with that. Some people try to fit into whatever
(category) it is they say and if you keep bouncing around, not doing what your capable of doing or of what you can do best, well that is what you should do. Try to worry about your presentation, about doing that properly) instead of worrying about...oh, I 'm in Texas so I'd better do a Country & Western song. Or, oh I'm in California so I got to do a cool jazz song. That's crazy!

NOJ: But even guys like Sonny Rollins did a Western album (Sonny Rollins Way Out West from 1959) that was successful.

FC: You know why he did it? It was because it made sense musically.

NOJ: Ray Charles was another artist that would crossover into different areas to widen his audiences.

FC: Well Ray wasn't doing anything different than what he was doing all his life. You go all the way back to his first thing and hey he wasn't doing anything different.

NOJ: Will you be playing with your regular quartet at the Palace show?

FC: Yes. Randy Napoleon on guitar, Elias Bailey on bass and Curtis Boyd on drums.

NOJ: Does Randy do some arranging for you?

FC: He has been arranging some of my material on the last two Cd's and he is doing a nice job.

NOJ: I understand your son Lionel is a talented musician and musical director in his own right?

FC: Yeah, he is a very fine musician. He is living in Australia now. He got married and he is living over there and is as busy as a one-armed paperhanger.

NOJ: It must be tough having him so far away?

FC: Yeah, I don't get a chance to see him and my two grandkids much. That's tough but you got to do what you got to do.

NOJ: Thanks so much Freddy for graciously spending this time to answer our questions. I look forward to seeing at you the Palace Theatre show on November 13, 2013.