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Richie Cole: Plays Ballads & Love Songs

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If you’ve wondered what Richie Cole is up to these days, he’s in Pittsburgh. He moved there in 2014. He is still practicing Alto Madness, a motto he adopted 40 years ago, as a name for his various bands and a description of his musical ideology. Cole is a rational saxophonist, but he plays modern bebop with a passion on the near edge of madness.

Perhaps it was a laidback Pittsburgh vibe that inspired him to finally do a ballads album. Perhaps it was a cool, clear, deliberate Pittsburgh rhythm section (guitarist Eric Susoeff, bassist Mark Perna, drummer Vince Taglieri). In any case, Cole and his Alto Madness are just right for ballads. His hard, slightly brittle tone, penetrating vibrato and headlong forward thrust all preclude sentimentality.

“Alfie” has been done to death, but in Cole’s loose rendering fervor prevails over introspection. Very few jazz musicians have dared to cover “Chances Are.” Johnny Mathis made it moony and creamy. Cole and his band make it physical and erotic. “Emily” is the name of Cole’s mother. It is the closest he comes to unalloyed gentleness, and he lingers over its hovering melody. Susoeff’s concise guitar interludes are islands of contemplative calm within every track.

The most surprising choice is “The Internationale,” the original national anthem of the Soviet Union. As a call for solidarity, it is a very pretty song. Cole adds “America the Beautiful” for a coda.

The best is “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most.” The famous interpretations are by vocalists like Ella and Carmen. Fran Landesman’s lyrics are the quintessence of hip detachment and ironic resignation. When Cole sings it on saxophone, without words, you hear the poignancy of Tommy Wolf’s melody, its rise and fall of hope. It is about love lost, after all.

Originally Published