By Don Heckman
Singer Hilary Kole has attracted a considerable following in New York City via performances at places such as the Rainbow Room, the Oak Room, Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall. She also co-created and originated the lead female roles in Off-Broadway hit musicals, “Our Sinatra” and “Singing Astaire.”
But when she arrived at Catalina Bar & Grill Tuesday night for her debut performance in Los Angeles, Kole was a relative unknown to most local jazz fans. Even so, it was immediately apparent that there was a lot to like about Kole.
Start with her choice of songs. Virtually her entire Tuesday night program was drawn from her new (and first) CD, “Haunted Heart.” And it would be hard to imagine a more diverse collection of material – from. among others, Duke Ellington, Alec Wilder, Tom Waits, Dory Caymmi and the Bergmans, Oscar Brown, Jr., and more. Add to that the musicality she brought to everything she touched – from her vocals to the arrangements she wrote – and her easygoing, engaging onstage manner. Nor did it hurt that she is a strikingly attractive young woman. Or that she chose the first rate back up ensemble of pianist Alan Broadbent, guitarist Larry Koonse, bassist Tom Warrington and drummer Kendall Kay.
Even so, Kole began her Tuesday set with a distinctly edgy quality to her voice. Despite imaginative phrasing and illuminating story-telling, the occasional abrasiveness of her sound, especially in the higher notes, suggested the possibility of some opening night nervousness.
But when she reached the Caymmi/Bergman tune “Like A Lover,” everything seemed to change. Instead of declaiming her notes, she communicated them with warmth and intimacy. Completely involved in her rich expressiveness, she pulled her listeners into the experience with her. Songs such as Wilder’s too-rarely heard “Blackberry Winter” and Irving Berlin’s touching “What’ll I Do?” emerged as definitive examples of the rich poetry in American song.
Other tunes – Oscar Brown, Jr.’s sardonically whimsical “The Snake” and Waits’ “Old Boyfriends” provided her with opportunities to display the versatility of her interpretive skills. Her take on “How Am I To Know?” called up her ability to sell a song with the blend of musicality and sexiness that come so naturally to her. And “Haunted Heart,” which she described as a “perfect song,” was delivered with a perfect understanding of its subtle combination of words and music.
Kole only has one more L.A. performance – again at Catalina Bar & Grill tonight. After which, she will leave the Southland, no longer as a relative unknown to those of us out here on the Left Coast, but with a clear presence as one of the most gifted of the up and coming young jazz vocal artists.