Here’s a question. Who has just produced a single CD with no fewer than thirteen pianists on it: Hank Jones, Cedar Walton. Freddy Cole, Kenny Barron, Dave Brubeck, Mike Renzi, Michel Legrand, Hank Jones, Benny Green (no, not that Benny Green, stop it!) , Dave Brubeck, Alan Broadbent, Steve Kuhn, Monty Alexander?
Thank you at the back. That’s right. It’s singer Hilary Kole, and the record, the result of four years of as-live duo sessions, is “There You Are” (Justin Time.)
Perhaps, if there hadn’t been quite so many top singers passing through the Pizza Express in Dean Street in the past month, Kole’s first performances in London, over two nights on Saturday and last night, might have got more attention. She has a very fine voice with power and character through a wide compass, and astonishing line and breath control in the slower numbers. She picks good songs. And there is pride, real craft in her delivery. She owns these songs, and delivers them with huge musicality.
She declared a fascination for the songs of the period from 1917 to the 1960’s and 60’s were much in evidence. Kole does a slow-torch gender-switched version of the Beatles’ “And I Love her, “ in the line of Shirley Horn’s recording on Travellin’ Light, and more recently of Diana Krall. There were three Michel Legrand numbers, notably a very fine, extended You Must Believe in Spring, as a duo with pianist Garry Dial.
Kole has also completely absorbed the Ella vocabulary. Love You Madly, the first half closer, complete with an Ella thigh-slap worked very well, time pulled and pushed around to great effect. A flirtatious and fast Deed I Do to end the second set was another virtuosic highlight.
Kole’s trio was flawless. New York pianist Garry Dial has been Kole’s musical mentor and piano teacher, “since I was yea high,” she said, gesturing at knee level. Dial added rich harmonic colour. In the encore, Night and Day, he threw out the challenge to the band of some catch-me-if-you-can root movement (they did). I was interested that while the harmonic adventure and invention was constant, there was far less rhythmic displacement from Garry Dial than we are used to hearing from British pianists like, say, Tom Cawley or Barry Green in this context.
Pete Cater on drums and Rob Rickenberg on bass were models of discretion. Cater is used to propelling big bands, but was equally at home here, providing, at one point in “Every Time We Say Goodbye” the most delicate of right-hand shimmers with brushes. Rickenberg’s timing, his unfailing placement of the harmonic rhythm has the kind of schooled and subtle perfection which runs one danger: such artistry can go unnoticed.
Kole describes herself as having grown up as a “stage kid,” and is indeed quite a performer. She switched to piano for a couple of numbers, which produced a different, more inward-looking vibe. She holds an audience’s interest in the words well, tells a good story. Oh yes, and she looks fabulous too. Dark, slim, elegant. the Ali McGraw hair from Love Story, she toys knowingly with a crowd. Referring to that immoveable (sic?) staple of the Pizza Express menu, the American Hot, she remarked: “I recommend to you the Hot American. Because I like the name.” Indeed.
It was a very enjoyable show, craft at a very high level. I’m sure Hilary Kole will return here, and look forward to it.