By Don Heckman
Corky Hale’s appearance at Vibrato Sunday night was less a performance than a happening. That’s not to say that there was a lack of music taking place. Far from it. But Hale — who roved freely around the stage, playing piano, harp, singing a far-ranging collection of standards, telling stories, interacting with the full house crowd – is not an advocate of detached presentation. Listening to her sing and play, laughing at her anecdotes about working with the likes of Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, George Michael and Bjork, had the feeling of a richly entertaining evening in her living room, surrounded by friends, family and fans.
Hale is one of the Southland’s true multi-hyphenates. Aside from her instrumental and vocal prowess, she’s a theatre, film and record producer, a political activist, a supporter of numerous charities, and has owned a restaurant and a clothing store. But she’s always been at her best when there was a piano, a harp or a microphone (and usually all three) within easy reach. As they were on Sunday.
She didn’t get to the harp – which she described as “that monster” until she’d played two or three tunes on the piano, amply displaying a style that makes full use of rich, two-handed harmonies and a jaunty sense of rhythm. When she finally moved to the “monster” for “My Funny Valentine,” the connection with her piano playing was immediately apparent – surely one of the most unique jazz styles ever articulated on this potentially cumbersome instrument. Her vocals were even more fascinating, in part because she sang with the musicality of an instrumentalist. But even more so because – in readings such as a whimsical take on “Who Cares” and Jerry Leiber and husband Mike Stoller’s “Kansas City” and “Loving You” – she revealed an unerring capacity to find the stories at the heart of a song’s lyrics. .
Hale was immensely aided by the presence of a trio of stellar players – guitarist John Chiodini, bassist Pat Senatore and drummer Ryan Doyle. Asked to respond quickly and accurately to her spontaneous choices of tunes and free flying interpretations, they did so superbly. Chiodini was a marvel, often doubling Hale’s harp melodies to produce instant mini-arrangements of tunes, playing several solo choruses – especially on the blues – that were among the evening’s highlights. Senatore, always a sturdy rhythm player with a rock steady sense of time, was a lyrically melodic soloist, as well. Doyle added the range of percussion sounds needed for Hale’s far-ranging musical selections. And a pair of songs by daughter-in-law Tricia Tahara assured that the family’s musical flow would continue for another generation.
After she left the stage, Hale confided to me that she felt that music was beginning to slip away as her primary focus. One hopes that isn’t true — that her many other interests will, in fact, allow her to focus even better on her music, as an unencumbered form of expressiveness. And that there will be more opportunities to share another unique, Corky Hale musical happening.