By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Jazzy singer Holly Cole perfectly illustrates how cool warmth can be. Her live show is so affecting that she can make even a huge outdoor shed like Starplex seem close and intimate, so this album--songs from a single night in Montreal in 1995--is a natural. Culled from her previous three U.S. releases, the tunes here are among the brightest in her repertoire: "Blame it On My Youth," "Cry (If You Want To)," and a brace of songs from Temptation, her collection of Tom Waits covers. Cole's strength has always been her rich range of vocal shadings and the moods they can invoke, most vividly presented on her reading of the classic "Que Sera Sera" as a slow, sophisticated urban blues. When, in the song's first verse, she wonders "will I be pretty?" her voice has the cotton-candy chirp of a little girl imagining herself as a princess; on the very next line--"will I be rich?"--she gives the line's last word a growl that bespeaks an older woman who's rearranged her priorities. The rest of the song follows suit, avoiding the fluffy cuteness of Doris Day's 1956 version and instead testifying to the way experience changes your hopes and dreams. That's quite a lot for one song, but Cole pulls it off masterfully.
Is there any legacy of the information age more depressing than the homogenization of culture, in which every great artist can be reduced to his or her popular successes? There's a great line in Neil Simon's California Suite where a classically trained actress expresses resentment over her Oscar nomination in a less-than-memorable movie: "Three Shaws, two Shakespeares, and a Pinter, and I'm nominated for some nauseating little comedy." Branford Marsalis probably left his post as Jay Leno's musical director on The Tonight Show not because the pay wasn't good or the popularity not flattering, but because the acclaim was meaningless: 10-second intros as celebrities talk about themselves and interim music for the studio audience to fill in while commercials run is awfully limiting for a gifted saxophonist. Marsalis' trio's virtuoso jazz playing is full of some beautifully syncopated tunes with unpredictable cadences that a TV audience interested in predictability and routine would never permit. The album's name refers to the flats and sharps on the piano, which give the title song a minor-chord mood that dominates this challenging if somewhat dense disc. The perfectly named "Hesitation," tentatively strummed and seductively played, and the fun of "Sentinel" contribute to the appealing variety and depth that Marsalis hasn't had much time to explore recently.
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