Jazz CD Review/Commentary: Holly Cole — Sticking to the Standards

By Steve Provizer

I did want to use this CD as a springboard to engage with the question of how using material of a certain age tends to pre-select — and limit — listenership.

There are a few, fairly standard approaches to creating a jazz vocalist CD.

The vocalist carries most of the load, but there are instrumental intros and tags and, almost always, instrumental solos in the middle. This is an internal structure that goes back to the 1930’s.

There are a few common approaches to choosing the repertoire of the recording. One is to create an homage to another (probably dead) singer. Another is to adopt a concept like “Moon” songs, “Summer” songs, or another subject broad enough to garner enough tunes to flesh out the concept. Another approach, the one picked for the CD Holly, is to choose “standards.” Roughly speaking, this means selecting songs from the Great American Songbook. By accumulating tunes that are recognizable, musicians tap into the benefits of accessibility. There can be — and usually is — some stretching of tempos, but nothing too extreme, as that would undermine the value of familiarity.

By no means am I suggesting that these approaches are questionable on the part of the creators of the CDs. In the case of Holly, the quality of the performance proves that the performers have a genuine feel for and love of the material.  However, I did want to use this CD as a springboard to engage with the question of how using material of a certain age tends to pre-select — and limit — listenership. I’ll take us through the tunes in Holly and address this idea in more detail later in the review.

The choice of tunes on Holly, though well within the parameters of standards, is fairly eclectic and all suit Holly Cole’s voice. She has a distinctive style, sings well, and the other musicians on the recording are excellent. These include Aaron Davis, piano, David Piltch, bass, and David DiRenzo, drums. Also: Wycliffe Gordon, trombone and vocal, Larry Goldings, piano/organ, Ben Street, bass, Ed Cherry, guitar, Justin Faulkner, drums, and Scott Robinson, saxophone and cornet.

The first tune, “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” is credited to Duke Ellington, Johnny Hodges, Don George, and Harry James (a lineup that is probably the result of behind the scenes negotiation with the publisher). Gordon plays a mellow trombone intro, taking us into a relaxed medium tempo. Cole gives us a basically straightforward vocal rendition, but subtle colorations and vocal gestures add interest. A growly trombone plunger solo by Gordon sticks pretty close to the melody. Cole’s vocal returns with trombone playing simple background lines that change back to plunger growls.

In “Your Mind is on Vacation,” a funky Mose Allison tune, Cole takes a hushed vocal approach. The accompaniment is very Mose-like, inspired by the spirit of Allison’s performances. Aaron Davis on Fender Rhodes piano breaks up the tune in a bluesy vein. Cole returns, then Davis takes it out with the rhythm section.

“I Was Doing All Right” by George and Ira Gershwin starts with a block chords intro on piano. This mid-tempo, relaxed approach is typical of how this tune is generally performed. Cole is joined here by Wycliffe, whose singing reminds me of Roy Eldridge’s. The voice of an instrumentalist is often not that of a “singer” — such is the case here. The attraction lies in his phrasing and general musicality. Tenor sax plays a simple, swinging solo, followed by trombone. A Wycliffe vocal takes it back in and moves into the background with the entry of Cole’s voice. They harmonize an ending.

“It Could Happen to You” boasts music by Jimmy Van Heusen and lyrics by Johnny Burke. This song is often taken in different tempos; Cole chooses to turn it into a slow ballad extended piano intro in a romantic vein by Larry Goldings, who starts things off, and the voice and piano carry the tune by themselves. Cole digs in a little deeper in this tune, establishing a richness of tone and in the process she brings out the tune’s, shall we say, “sophisticated innocence.”

“Ain’t That a Kick in the Head” is another Van Heusen tune, with lyrics by Sammy Cahn. Pilch kicks it off on bass with Cole blithely alluding to the “Rat Pack” version sung by Dean Martin. She pushes hard on some obvious rhymes, as if to say, “I know this is retro and possibly corny and I’m letting you know I know it.” The rhythm section is sparse, with bass and brushes on drums. Essentially, this is a meta-take, bringing out the tune’s campy quality.

“Teach Me Tonight” has music written by Gene De Paul and lyrics, again, by Sammy Cahn. Larry Golding on Hammond B3 organ provides background to Cole’s appropriately seductive approach to this much-covered tune. I’d place Cole’s approach closest to Dinah Washington’s version. Organ solos in the same coy-seductive vein, with a heavy blues touch. Cole builds up some heat in her closing chorus.

“We’ve Got a World That Swings” by Lil Mattis and Louis Brown is a slightly less-known tune than the others on the album. Melodically, harmonically, and lyrically, it combines “I Got Rhythm” chord changes and “Give Me the Simple Life.” Nice tenor sax and cornet solos, both by Scott Robinson, are featured. The opening and closing are reminiscent of an intro often heard on “Thou Swell.” The impression left is that choosing this song let Cole pay homage to the concept of a “standard.”

“They Can’t Take That Away,” by George Gershwin and Ira Gershwin, is one of the pair’s most performed standards. Different tempos are common. Here the song is taken at a slightly slow medium-tempo, just above the rhythm of a ballad. Cole performs it as she does the other tunes on the CD.  It’s straightforward, but inflected with numerous small vocal twists that add considerable color and interest. Tenor sax gets a longer solo showcase here and plays well. Some small tampering with the harmony of the accompaniment works.

“Everybody Loves Somebody,” by Sam Coslow, Irving Taylorm, and Ken Lane, was a big hit for Dean Martin in 1964. Cole takes it as a ballad, slower than Martin’s rendition. Her overemphasis on certain words and syllables is reminiscent of the parody treatment of “Kick in the Head.” Initially, I had the feeling she was sometimes playing “on” the song, rather than playing it. But she is more sincere here, treating the tune more or less at face value. She uses vibrato and takes a more overtly emotional approach, with a little bit of a country music spin. Aaron David plays it straight and sweetly during his piano solo. When Cole comes back in, we hear an occasional nod to Dean, by way of his laconic drawl — but Cole’s reading of the tune is down with the tune, not a send-up.

Rodgers and Hart’s “I Could Write a Book” is taken at a medium swing tempo, with Wycliffe once again lending his voice. His trombone solo here shows off his chops, which I hear more in terms of range and flexibility than in negotiating the chord changes. Gordon brings in some Satchmo-isms when he works with Cole on the out chorus.

“Lazy Afternoon” is a lovely ballad by Jerome Moross and lyrics by John La Touche. Organ with cymbal splashes accompany Cole’s rendition of the first chorus. This tune fits particularly well with this singer’s voice and stylistic approach. The song’s poetic lyric contains touches of the down-to-earth. The rhythm section does a very slow churn in the background and the approach works well. The simple guitar solo by Ed Cherry sets the right mood; the spacey approach to the out chorus makes for a good psychic fit. The final phrase of the tune is played instrumentally, not by voice, which I find odd.

Now, let’s look at when the tunes on this recording were first published:

I’m Beginning to See the Light-1944. Your Mind Is on Vacation-1976; I Was Doing All Right-1937; It Could Happen to You-1943; Ain’t That a Kick in the Head-1960; Teach Me Tonight-1953; We’ve Got a World That Swings-1963; They Can’t Take That Away-1937; Everybody Loves Somebody-1947; I Could Write a Book-1940; Lazy Afternoon-1954.

Singer Holly Cole. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

The newest entry is “Your Mind Is on Vacation,” from 1976. The rest are at least 50 years old. It is fairly predictable that the audience for these songs will either be among the senior cohort or the small number of younger people who, for one reason or another, make an effort to seek out this material. For the under-50 set, you might as well change the dates of these tunes from the 1900’s to the 1800’s. Stephen Foster is probably a more familiar creative presence to this listenership than Jimmy Van Heusen.

This trend of jazz moving outside of mainstream popular culture has been duly noted and well documented. But it’s worth remembering that jazz musicians were once important interpreters of current popular culture, taking the material of Tin Pan Alley, Broadway, and films and reconceiving it through a jazz lens. I describe the process here, using the tune “All The Things You Are” as the example.

Again, I don’t mean to assail any of the artists who create albums in this format. They are usually highly skilled and talented and, as this CD amply shows, they have a strong investment in the material they handle. One can no more bemoan the fact that the creative matrix in which these musicians operate has become archaic than one can bemoan the fact that clean 78’s have better audio fidelity than MP3 files.

Will jazz move back into a more central cultural position? Should it? These questions drift hazily through the jazz world, like meandering storm fronts that arbitrarily pick up and lose intensity. The answers are delicately woven into the zeitgeist and as unpredictable as the New England weather. Who knows? But bring an umbrella, just in case.

Steve Provizer writes on a range of subject, most often the arts. He is a musician and blogs about jazz here.

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  1. Evelyn Rosenthal on April 19, 2019 at 3:48 pm

    Interesting piece, Steve. The same is true for jazz instrumental albums, though in both vocal and instrumental jazz more contemporary tunes are creeping into the repertoire. The Arlington Jazz Festival (next Thursday, the 25th) has a group playing “psychedelic”-era tunes as jazz; I’m going to check that out!

    • Steve Provizer on April 19, 2019 at 4:00 pm

      For sure. On the music I see, there’s a higher percentage of instrumental stuff that has more original material. It may be that singers who want to focus more on songwriting find that the folk or rock area is more propitious than jazz.

      • Gerald Peary on April 24, 2019 at 6:06 pm

        Couldn’t it be read as a good thing that Holly Cole is introducing young jazz fans to fabulous classics, and semi-classics, from many years ago? Actually, her selections seem to me fairly adventurous.

        • Steve Provizer on April 24, 2019 at 8:23 pm

          Yes, I agree and as I noted, it’s a pretty eclectic range of tunes…
          There are lots of ways of looking at using standards as the organizing point of a recording. The one you note is on the optimistic end of the scale-and I certainly hope that happens. The statistics-and non-complementary views about jazz coming from young people in the media seem to be telling us that it’s an uphill battle. Of course, that doesn’t mean the best strategy is to jettison the best material.

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