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Hilary Kole

You Are There

(Justin Time; US: 10 Aug 2010; UK: Import)

Hilary Kole has a beautiful voice, one just about ideally suited to singing in the jazz cabarets of New York, holding its own against the best in the business. She is the youngest singer ever to play the Rainbow Room, and she has been acclaimed in gigs at the Algonquin’s Oak Room, Off-Broadway doing Sinatra and Astraire, and at Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, Town Hall, Iridium, The Blue Note, The Jazz Standard—you get the idea.


Hilary Kole is a professional jazz singer in the town that hosts only the best.


Here’s another way of saying how excellent she is. Her new (and only second) recording features her in duet with ten of the greatest living jazz pianists: Dave Brubeck, Cedar Walton, Kenny Barron, Michel Legrand, Steve Kuhn, Monty Alexander, Freddy Cole, Benny Green, Alan Broadbent, and Mike Renzi.  The eleventh pianist is the recently departed Hank Jones.


Impressed?


You should be.  And yet, at the same time, you’re excused if You Are There is not an album that you love. It is beautiful, to be sure, and in moments maybe transcendent. But it is also slightly numbing or flat, with track after track of standard ballads, each performed with an exquisite theatricality. Not that it’s corny or affected, overdone or underdone. But it is like a meal of pastries—each one delicious, but the collective meal seeming bland, with minimal contrasts, and dainty in its reach.


Kole has a bright, clean sound, and she controls it with artful choice. She is as good as it gets on “I Remember”, from Stephen Sondheim’s Evening Primrose, accompanied by Mike Renzi. She is sophisticated and emotive, molding each well-written word in whispers and cries, shaping the phrases in beautiful arcs yet singing it like a story rather than just a gorgeous melody. On a word like “umbrellas”, Kole opens her throat and lets it fly, but then she can take “remember” and let it trail off into air. Renzi keeps it minimal and lets Kole tell the story—which makes it perfect.


You Are There fares less well when it is working with the done-to-death jazz standards. Kenny Barron is sturdy and inventive on “Lush Life”, of course, and Kole moves around this difficult melody with practiced ease. But does this version add anything to how we hear the great Strayhorn song? You could ask the same question about Kole’s versions of “These Foolish Things” (despite the rather idiosyncratic accompaniment by Dave Brubeck), “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” (with Benny Green) and “All the Way” (with Monty Alexander and where Kole is oddly affected).  The answer, pretty much, is, no, nothing new here.


This, perhaps, is the nature of the piano vocal duet. Unless the pianist takes a quirky path or forces an equal partnership with the singer, these performances are very much about the singing of the song itself. It’s not enough just to sing a standard well, as it might be when a full band is using the tune to generate some thrilling swing. So, where else does Kole make her mark?


Brubeck’s own “Strange Meadowlark” isn’t heard much, and Kole gives it a stately but tender reading that jumps to easy life on the swinging bridge. “Every Time We Say Goodbye” is taken at an uncommonly slow tempo, and Cedar Walton gives Kole plenty of room to let her tones linger and then soften. Walton’s solo: masterful.  “Two for the Road”, with Steve Kuhn, seems uncommonly suited to Kole’s dramatic strengths—her vibrant tone and confident way with the story.


The two tracks with the late Hank Jones are among the finest, if only because Hank is an uncommonly brilliant accompanist. “But Beautiful” is pliant and rich, with just enough of a hint of stride feeling in the ballad time. “If I Had You” is the most purely appealing and sexy performance on the disc, with a mid-tempo feeling of dance that both performers bring to the moment. There is no wonder it was chosen to open the disc, but little else on the You Are There feels this limber and light.


Certainly not the title track. “You Are There” is a criminally under-performed ballad by Johnny Mercer and Dave Frishberg, a delicate, mournful song that turns unexpectedly bright on a couple of ingenious chords But Kole and Alan Broadbent seem to push it too hard, as if it were a Broadway tune written for Kristin Chenoweth. This one just seems like a miscalculation.


You Are There might have benefitted from a bit more action, generally. Freddy Cole’s super-relaxed vocals (along with his piano) on “It’s Always You” balance Hilary Kole’s bright sound just about perfectly, and the extra voice is a blessed contrast in this too-much-the-same project. Despite the fascinating contrasts between these 11 different pianists, each player is too tasteful and mature to really flaunt his own personality when his job is to create the setting for Kole. No matter how different these gentlemen may be, You Are There is subtle enough to work as a challenging “blindfold test” for jazz piano fans. Who’s on this track again? Good luck.


You Are There was recorded over the course of several years, and it is impressive that Kole and producer Gianni Valenti patiently put together such a well-heeled and distinguished project over four years. But sometimes jazz loses a bit when it’s thought through too much. Could that be the case here?


I look forward to Hilary Kole’s next outing. I hope it’s messier and more swinging, with some flying horn solos and a drummer who doesn’t know his place. With a voice as big as Kole’s, a dash of chaos should be no problem. Let’s mix it up, Hilary!

Rating:

Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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