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.