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Holly Cole Christmas at the NAC (review)

Holly Cole ©Brett Delmage, 2012

Holly Cole Christmas
Thursday, December 20, 2012
National Arts Centre Theatre

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CBC Radio will broadcast selections from this concert on Christmas Eve at 6 p.m. (Radio 2, 103.3 FM) and on Christmas Day at 6 p.m. (Radio 1, 91.5 FM).

It's a difficult task to pick songs for what's billed as a Christmas concert. Unless you want to remind your audience of school auditoriums, you don't want to go "All carols, all the time" or even all seasonal songs.

Vocalist Holly Cole solved that by salting her concert Thursday night with just enough seasonal music – all impeccably jazz – to justify its Christmas billing, while also including favourite hits and a selection of songs from her latest CD, Night.

During her decades-long career, Cole has gathered many fans, and the enthusiasm was evident in the sold-out theatre even before the music started. Parents had brought their children (some dressed in Christmas finery); others were clearly there for a date night. The concert was being taped by CBC Radio, and announcer Meg Wilcox asked the audience to preview three levels of applause to allow the technicians to calibrate recording levels. You could hear the anticipation, as the loudest applause level reverberated around the NAC Theatre.

The concert began with deep, earthy notes on the baritone sax as the band strode down the stairs from the back of the room. When they reached the stage, Cole joined them from the wings for “Walk Away”, a strongly grooving number from her latest CD to kickstart the evening. It featured Toronto musician Colleen Allen on baritone, who showed throughout the evening both her versatility (tenor, alto, and soprano sax, clarinet, and flute as well as baritone) but also great timing and intense soloing that always fit the music.

 It was a very tight band backing Cole: her long-time pianist Aaron Davis, Mark Rogers on bass, and Davide diRenzo on drums, as well as Allen. They moved easily from upbeat to soulful, with occasional step-outs for solos. And you could see that Cole herself saw them as more than backup: there were times during solos when she just listened, moving to the music, with a deep smile on her face.

The musicians were dressed in "Sophisticated Yule": the band wearing black suits with red shirts and coordinating ties, and Cole in a short black cocktail dress with red elbow-length gloves and red shoes (she switched to white gloves and white boots at intermission). Their dress subtly enhanced the music rather than distracting from it.

“Charade”, the second number, was also upbeat, starting with a Charlie Parker vibe on alto sax. It showed Cole in one of her standard personas: the detached observer commenting on live and life with a slinky, slightly cynical, and often amusing view. Cole has made a specialty of this ever since her first hit, “Girl Talk”, and can hit the attitude perfectly – and make it highly enjoyable.

But there was another Cole in the concert, too, when she dropped the attitude and sung straight in more emotional songs like “Ne Me Quitte Pas/If You Go Away”, “2000 Miles” or the closing number, “I Can See Clearly Now”. She delivered them with purity and passion, occasionally in a more husky voice to match the lyrics. Cole's own song, “Larger than Life”, was an example of this: a simple confessional ballad with smoothly intelligent words, underlined by a fine flute solo by Allen.

The Christmas music was, of course, a big hit with the audience: “Santa Baby” – “dedicated to those who like to get lots of expensive things” – was delivered in an unadorned, conversational style that allowed the lyrics to come through perfectly. “I'd Like You for Christmas” was introduced as “one of the sexiest things you'll hear”, and delivered like a torch song. “Maybe This Christmas” was a heartfelt ballad. “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” was bright and jazzy, fast and full of fun.

After a standing ovation, the band returned for “When My Baby Comes Home”, which started with a sly bass riff and turned into an upbeat blues in which all the musicians stretched out for longer solos while Cole sat back and beamed – and then came back perfectly on the proper beat. After another standing ovation, there came an unexpected announcement: the CBC recording crew needed a redo on “I'd Like You for Christmas”. The band was happy to do it and the audience was even happier to hear it again. They nailed it: an even more expressive and deeply sexy version than the first time, ending with a lovely vocal fadeout, and a third standing ovation.

The band overcame some technical difficulties: the backdrops were not in place for the first few numbers, and occasionally (and especially in the first two songs) Cole's vocals sounded muffled for short periods, but this did not affect the overall performance,

It was a highly professional, very musical – and to judge from the audience reaction – highly enjoyable concert by a vocalist who showed why she has become an icon for so many jazz vocalists who have followed her.

    – Alayne McGregor

Holle Cole returns to the 2013 Montreal Jazz Festival on June 27-29 to present her new album, Night.

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Photos from the concert   ©Brett Delmage, 2012
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