©Brett Delmage, 2018
Holly Cole and pianist Aaron Davis shared a happy moment in the sophisticated “Charade”. ©Brett Delmage, 2018

Holly Cole
NAC Presents
National Arts Centre Theatre
Friday, November 2, 2018 – 7:30 p.m.

View photos by Brett Delmage of this performance

Holly Cole takes her music from many sources: the Great American Songbook, Tom Waits, pop songs. But in her voice and with the backing of her skilled band, they all turn into golden jazz.

At her National Arts Centre concert Friday, Cole received two standing ovations – and moments of complete silence and attention as well – as she presented tunes from across her career. The show was both an introduction to her latest CD, Holly, from 2018, and a selection of favourites reaching back to her first full-length album, Girl Talk, in 1990.

It's been 2½ years since Cole last performed in Ottawa, and 6 years since she was at the NAC, and her audience was as enthusiastic as ever. The 897-seat NAC Theatre was about 80% full, and from the very first song, the audience responded with very strong applause and cheers – to which Cole made the effort to respond in both French and English.

Backing Cole were Toronto jazz musicians she's played with for years: pianist Aaron Davis, saxophonist John Johnson, bassist George Koller, and drummer Davide DiRenzo. If Cole was the star, they were the muscle behind and the contrasting voices in her music – and she let them shine as well.

Throughout the show, they added memorable moments: Koller's emphatic double bass riff with high harmonics which dramatically opened “Get Out of Town”; Johnson's circling soprano sax lines accenting Cole's vocals in “Charade” and his undulating flute in “Me and My Shadow”; Davis' strikingly simple and understated piano matching the deep emotion of Cole's singing in “My Foolish Heart”; and DiRenzo's cowbell and drumbeats which powered “Train Song”.

It was a fast-moving show, with a wide dynamic and stylistic range. It opened with the Tom Waits number “Take Me Home”, a sultry and dramatic number with Cole singing over a simple rhythm – which emphasized the strength of her vocals and the emotional impact of the lost-love lyrics.

She included four more of Waits' songs, with the entire group playing with and adding instrumental and vocal richness to each of the songs. “(Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night”, which opened the second set, was a particular stand-out, with Cole fully immersing herself in its country blues feel and swaying slinkily to Johnson's tenor sax solo. Cole released an entire Waits tribute album (Temptation), and has included his songs on others of her albums as well.

From Holly, Cole took four jazz standards: the syncopated “I'm Beginning to See the Light”, in which she matched her vocal style to Johnson's tenor sax lines; the ironic “Ain't That a Kick in the Head”, with her scatting to Koller's bass riffs; the bubbling “We've Got a World That Swings”; and the sophisticated “They Can't Take That Away From Me”. Each was a strong and swinging ensemble performance.

Other highlights included the double bass and vocals duet which opened “Me and My Shadow”, with Cole cozying up to Koller centre-stage in an arrangement that perfectly visually and musically emphasized the message in the lyrics; the movie-theme brashness of “Charade”; and the rolling rhythms of “Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues”, with Cole underscoring the words with well-timed pauses.

Cole consistently picks songs which are strong in both their words and music, and her clear delivery ensures the audience can understand all the lyrics. Some of the tunes she sang straight, letting the words flow out; in others, for example “Que Sera Sera”, she played with changing her vocal style from line to line.

In this set list, there was a particularly good match between her rendition and the songs in Casey Scott's “Cry (If You Want To)”, with its Latin beat adding hope under the melancholy lyrics; and Cole's own tune, “You've Got a Secret”, with Johnson's bluesy clarinet lines echoing her plaintive singing.

The climax of the evening came in the last number, as Cole's compelling voice filled the theatre with the joyous message of “I Can See Clearly Now”. It's a number she's been singing for the last 25 years, and yet it sounded fresh. She simply encompassed and embodied that song and brought the entire audience along with her, in rapt attention.

For an encore, Cole reached right back to Girl Talk and the smooth ride of the Smokey Robinson hit “Cruisin'”. By itself, that song was a fine upbeat closer, but it became even more interesting as Cole (as she has before) gave her band the opportunity to stretch out for extended and inventive solos – with Cole leading the audience in clapping along to the beat.

I was especially impressed with DiRenzo's drum interlude, in which he used mallets to create powerful and echoing patterns that built up to a climax and then faded out, but never too loudly and always with a beautifully controlled and warmly resonant sound. Johnson's tenor sax solo was extremely intense and full-bodied (Cole exclaimed “Omigod!” as he ended), while Koller created fast melodies on his double bass, slapping the strings and puling out inflected long notes. Davis played a subdued and classically-influenced solo, beginning by stroking the strings inside the piano and then moving to the keyboard to insert a romantic ballad – before changing the mood back to doo-wop with echoing repeated notes, and signaling the band to return to “Cruisin'”.

As Cole sang a last long held note, the room again erupted in applause and the crowd stood for a second standing ovation.

Any Holly Cole concert is an Event – but that's because of her and her band's ability to produce a well-prepared, well-planned, and well-delivered show. Her NAC performance was focused and didn't miss a beat.

Set 1

  1. Take Me Home / Tom Waits
  2. Charade / Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer
  3. Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues / Danny O'Keefe
  4. I'm Beginning to See the Light / Duke Ellington, Don George, Johnny Hodges, and Harry James
  5. Ain't That a Kick in the Head / Jimmy Van Heusen, Sammy Cahn
  6. Cry (If You Want To) / Casey Scott
  7. My Foolish Heart / Victor Young, Ned Washington
  8. We've Got a World That Swings / Louis Yule Brown, Lil Mattis
  9. Me and My Shadow / Dave Dreyer, Billy Rose, Al Jolson
  10. Bye Bye Blackbird / Mort Dixon, Ray Henderson

Set 2

  1. (Looking for) The Heart of Saturday Night / Tom Waits
  2. Down, Down, Down / Tom Waits
  3. Train Song / Tom Waits
  4. They Can't Take That Away From Me / George Gershwin, Ira Gershwin
  5. Get Out of Town / Cole Porter
  6. That Old Black Magic / Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer
  7. You've Got a Secret / Holly Cole
  8. Jersey Girl / Tom Waits
  9. Que Sera Sera / Jay Livingston and Ray Evans
  10. I Can See Clearly Now / Johnny Nash
  11. Encore: Cruisin' / Smokey Robinson, Marc Taplin

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