Freddy Cole Sings Mr. B
Few remember Billy Eckstine as a bebop pioneer whose orchestra in the early ’40s ignited the careers of Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and Dexter Gordon. Instead, Eckstine is remembered for an entirely different sort of pioneering, as the first black balladeer to earn enormous crossover popularity. It was Eckstine who paved the way for Nat King Cole. So it makes absolute sense that Freddy, whose subdued elegance so strongly echoes his elder brother’s, would shape this tribute. He is, after Nat, the logical heir to the Eckstine throne. But the appropriateness of the salute is secondary to the delivery. And the delivery is not just impeccable but rather profound.
From the indigo sensuousness of “Tender Is the Night” and sweet perplexity of “To Be or Not to Be in Love” to the rollicking, gold-digging playfulness of “Ma, She’s Makin’ Eyes at Me,” Cole summons not the ghost but the spirit of Eckstine, which is eminently more satisfying. Kudos, too, to Cole for sidestepping such signature Eckstine hits as “Prisoner of Love” and “Caravan” in favor of rarer, more interesting tunes, including the stunning “Portrait,” the dew-soft “Pretty One” and the delightful ode to self-actualization that is “The High and the Mighty.” Houston Person is the marquee accompanist, and he adds expectedly superb tenor sax tailoring to seven of the 12 tracks. Less exalted but equally praiseworthy is pianist John Di Martino, who weaves gentle magic throughout.