PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Music

Natalie Cole: Ask a Woman Who Knows

Maurice Bottomley

Natalie Cole

Ask a Woman Who Knows

Label: Verve
US Release Date: 2002-09-17
UK Release Date: Available as import
Amazon
iTunes

In spite of a long and successful career, not to mention the odd Grammy or two, it remains the case that Natalie Cole has never really been a cognoscente favourite. Hardcore soul and jazz fans have dismissed the majority of her work as too commercially driven, while her undoubted vocal talents have been taken as given rather than raved about. Then there is the issue of one of the longest parental shadows imaginable. The combined result has been that even the singer's potential, as well as her actual output, has suffered prolonged critical neglect.

It is true that much of her '70s and '80 work has dated rather badly. However, there are exceptions. One song in particular, "Annie Mae", is something of a UK rare groove anthem and well worth seeking out. When she moved away from soul towards jazz in the early '90s, the best-selling "duets" on Unforgettable were viewed with some skepticism, not to say cynicism. Moreover, her enduring MOR appeal has also tended to obscure the fact that given a sympathetic arrangement she is, and always has been, a stylish and expressive vocalist.

Ask a Woman Who Knows provides the proof. It will also sell well, as it has Verve boss Tommy LiPuma's astute signature written all over it. Happily, these days that means that though the mainstream market is very much in mind, the arrangements are as tasteful and well considered as any in her father's Capitol heyday. For me, this is comfortably the best album Natalie Cole has made. It is still not going to make anyone hail Cole as the new Billie Holliday, but is easily on a par with the best of the many recent (and mostly Krall-motivated) female vocal sets. There is the expected mixture of pop, soul, and jazz sensibilities but these no longer sound forced or contrived. At its best Ask a Woman Who Knows has an ease and a maturity that should convince the most suspicious listener that Cole is more than just a jazz wannabe.

The songs have been well chosen, ranging from the very well known to the comparatively esoteric. The latter are not quite as obscure as the PR team claims but are refreshing options and provide the highlights of a more than competent trawl through aspects of the "20th century American Songbook". The best of these make up the first three tracks. "I Haven't Got Anything Better to Do" is no match for Dee Dee Warwick's definitive 1973 original but is full of cool poise and languorous regret. On the other hand, Cole's rendition of Michael Franck's "Tell Me All About It" is a beautiful bossa nova and possibly superior to the (very good) original. Then comes the title track, usually associated with Dinah Washington, which Cole takes into a very winning territory somewhere between Washington and Sarah Vaughan.

The session's predominant style is mostly "dinner jazz" with a couple of brassy, big band interventions. By and large, the more intimate the arrangement the better Cole responds, although "Calling You", the Baghdad Café theme that has become a modern "smooth" standard, is taken far too slowly for my liking. If you want a useful corrective, try A:xus' glorious deep house version. That apart, a prevailing romantic mood is carefully and convincingly maintained. "You're Mine You", "So Many Stars" (both with luscious orchestral backing), and a Hollywood-ish "I'm Glad There Is You" are fine examples of the well-crafted popular song and all are given their full worth.

An elite squad of musicians, some of them now LiPuma stalwarts such as bassist Christian McBride and that subtlest of guitarists, Russell Malone, ensure that the instrumental side of things is never less than watertight. Joe Sample, Terry Trotter, and Alan Broadbent make a formidable and appropriate trio of accompanists and each does his appointed task with sophistication and suitable discretion. The repertoire covered requires everything to sound effortless and the music achieves that goal with ease.

There are blips. I doubt that the world needs another re-hash of "My Baby Just Cares for Me" and a guest appearance, on "Better than Anything", by Diana Krall has the nasty whiff of marketing men to it. In their defense, Cole Sr. recorded the former long before the unforgettable-but-played-to-death Nina Simone version arrived. Unfortunately, this one (musically and, somewhat anachronistically, lyrically) draws on the later recording, to which is added a rather gauche big band arrangement. As for Krall, she is excellent, adding poise and urbanity to what is otherwise a rather irritating, mock-clever lyric.

By the close, the "Vegas Cabaret" element, which has dogged a lot of Cole's "jazz" work has perhaps gained too much prominence but cannot undermine the high standards established at the outset. This is a work of maturity and represents, I hope, the seam which Cole will now continue to mine for the rest of her career. I would love to hear her with just the basic quintet used on this album. If you haven't taken much notice of this singer since her "Pink Cadillac" days, or if you are a jazz buff who sniffs at the very mention of her name, Ask a Woman Who Knows offers you a chance to both catch up and do a little re-assessing. Cole has definitely found her métier and in Verve has a label that should look after her musically (and commercially) for many years to come. This is a solid album and an even better one is now within her reach.

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Music

Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.

Books

Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.

Music

'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.

Music

Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.

Music

The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.

Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.