Album: Holly Cole, Night (2012)
?A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer, it sings because it has a song.?
?When a singer truly feels and experiences what the music is all about, the words will automatically ring true.?
This Songbird Built the Golden Cage and Comes and Goes at Will
I first heard of Holly Cole in the early ?90s, when I saw a bit on the news about this young jazz songstress whose career was just taking off. Jazz music and song stylists had long fallen from the upper echelons of mass popularity, but there were still some of us sufficiently devoted to the genre to patronize any new performers who stood out.
This one was the daughter of Leon Cole, a CBC Radio jazz program host whose shows I’d been glued to for years. She was singing Lyle Lovett’s ?God Will,? frozen with concentration, her eyes locked with her pianist?s, and I was not impressed. Her pitch was less than perfect, and she seemed overly contrived, almost stultified, in her delivery.
That was before I knew what it meant to be a great singer. (I didn’t think much of Billie Holiday back then, either.) Still, I was curious enough to follow her career from the corner of one eye. When I did finally figure out what made a singer great, she became one of my favourite divas.
Cole’s unique gifts? Her minimalist approach, for one. She carves out and sands away everything that sabotages the light a song throws off, and in doing so She’s managed to reveal the merit of many songs that sound meaningless coming from the mouths of their original interpreters.
Her choice of repertoire is ingenious. There are recognizable patterns, most notably her special affinity for Tom Waits songs (or their affinity for her); otherwise her song choices can’t be predicted, which makes each new album a delightful jack-in-the-box.
Like Billie Holiday, Cole has a voice That’s small, imperfect, and unobtrusive, but that conveys great depth and an amazing spectrum of emotional shading. Songs you always thought were mindless suddenly show themselves to be bursting with the secret sentiments we all share.
One example is her excellent delivery of ?Viva Las Vegas? and the wonderful solos her band comes up with. She even takes a great tongue-in-cheek stab at the country classic ?I Thought of You Again.?
Her bare-bones accompaniment and arrangements are amazing, superlatively appropriate to her aesthetic. She chooses musicians who are just like her, who use the same minimalist approach and the same extreme focus on delivering beauty at all costs. The result is restrained and yet able to blow you to the moon with improvisations.
An idea whose time has come: Rod McKuen’s ?If You Go Away,? which slowly morphs into the French song it was based on, Jacques Brel’s much-loved ?Ne me quitte pas.?
Cole also sings Gordon Lightfoot’s ?If You Could Read My Mind.? If the sangfroid beginning to such a deeply emotional song puts you off, just keep listening?at the second verse, Cole makes the heavens open up. It’s not often that music makes me cry. Enough said.
Night manifests six of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for music well worth hearing: 1) it is authentic, original, and delightful; 2) it provides respite from a sick and cruel world, a respite enabling me to renew myself for a return to mindful artistic endeavour; 3) it is about attainment of the true self; 4) it displays an engagement with and compassionate response to suffering; 5) it makes me want to be a better artist; and 6) it makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomenon, making living a unique opportunity.