Throughout her current Birdland gig, the jazz-pop singer Hilary Kole has only the following elements to offer: a pure voice that flows as easily as burnished notes from a muted trumpet, impeccable musicianship, pellucid phrasing, the ability to swing an up-tune and infuse a ballad with simmering passion, a grounding in the history of contemporary pop songwriting and interpretation, experience working with authoritative instrumentalists like Oscar Peterson and Dave Brubeck, a careful way with final consonants (not a certainty from vocalists these days), an obvious understanding of Ella Fitzgerald's influential artistry, a visible appreciation of the musicians backing her (the marvelous pianist-arranger Tedd Firth, guitarist John Hart, drummer Mark McLean, bassist Paul Gill) and a nonchalant wave of the left arm when she finishes a fast number. To throw one more item into the overwhelming mix: She possesses brunette beauty that makes you wonder if she was separated at birth from Catherine Zeta Jones and Jaclyn Smith.
If that's not enough to make anyone want to listen to and look at her in an understated black cocktail dress and high-heeled gold-strap shoes and tresses flowing past her shoulders, then those demanding customers are advised to look elsewhere for their supper-club rewards. All others are encouraged to catch Kole singing about love--with one exception, Bobby Troup's devilish "Lemon Twist"--through Valentine's Day at the famous-name room, now as important to the music scene as was the original Birdland on East Fifty-Second Street.
Because Kole has called Birdland home for several years, her sultry improvising (some scatting but not much) isn't a surprise. For that reason, the opening "I Just Found About Love" has the effect of kicking off what promises to be a set of standards treated in a gentle-on-the-ear jazz manner. The expectation plays out with the David Wheat-Bill Loughborough "Better Than Anything," a list song that Kole says she still doesn't quite understand--an honest response, since what the songwriters are referring to as better than anything but love is never made explicit. (Kole says she has her theories but keeps them to herself.) The bright-and-breezy approach is also applied to Duke Ellington's signature "Love You Madly" as well as to the Dorothy Parker (yes, Dottie Parker)-Jack King "How Was I to Know," wherein Kole makes the repeated "Oh"'s as provocative as an aphrodisiac. Plus which: During his break at the piano, Firth only adds to the subdued playfulness.
The real surprise is in Kole's assured way--and more than that--with the slow selections. Some of them are taken extremely slowly, which turns them into probing examinations of the mysterious feelings genuine love can stir up. Probably no one has sung the John Lennon-Paul McCartney "And I Love Him" as slooooowly as Kole does, which lends it a searching meaning The Beatles only began to get at.
As the set progresses, Kole's commitment to the unspoken depths certain songs plumb only intensifies. Introducing the Oscar Hammerstein-Jerome Kern "The Folks Who Live on the Hill" from the 1937 High, Wide and Handsome movie musical, Kole talks about the contrasting effect the song can have when done by a very young singer as opposed to someone a good deal older. (She cites Peggy Lee's late version as a favorite.) Then she goes for something "somewhere in the middle" and delivers a treatment so exquisite that tears can well up in a listener's eyes. She does the same with the great and subtly melancholy "Too Late Now" that Alan Jay Lerner and Burton Lane dreamed up for another film, 1951's Royal Wedding. In these items, she reveals feelings few jazz singers ever acknowledge in themselves or even notice.
Incidentally, in time for Kole's Birdland nesting, she's bringing out a new CD, Haunted Heart, on which she uses the same musicians but for Hart, who's replaced by the disk's producer, John Pizzarelli. The "Haunted Heart" title couldn't be more appropriate, because there is something not only haunting about her renditions of the ballads included but also, in the way she does them, somehow stunningly haunted.
And speaking of "Haunted Heart," the song is also one that Jane Monheit, another spiritual child of Ella Fitzgerald's, has made a vital part of her repertoire. There has always been plenty for which to thank the late, great Fitzgerald. With Monheit and Kole paying such fresh tribute, there are now two more reasons.