Singer Freddy Cole, now 82, takes his time-stepping with care-as he walks from the wings to the spotlight’s glare at center stage. His pace has slowed over the years to the point where it now matches his approach to the jazz ballad, a vehicle at which he has always excelled. That was much in evidence on Monday, Feb. 3, when Cole was a special guest of the Naples Jazz Orchestra at an outdoor concert at the Cambier Park bandshell in downtown Naples, Fla. The concert also featured guitarist Randy Napoleon, who is one of Cole’s frequent accompanists.
Above all else, the evening showed that Cole remains the master of the jazz ballad. He lets the song breathe between words, sometime syllables. He savors each word in his brand of musicality. Such was the case with each of his ballads, beginning with his opener, Stevie Wonder’s “Isn’t She Lovely,” through two sets that ran the gamut from material by one of his big ballad heroes, Billy Eckstine, to the Frankie Laine jazz hit “Mam’selle,” and pop singers Bobby Darin and Helen Reddy (“You and Me Against the World”).
His material ranged from the languid Eckstine-associated ballad “A Cottage for Sale” (a million-seller for Mr. B in 1945) to “Tender is the Night,” “I Saw Stars” and “Since You Have Gone.” The evening sounded autobiographical at times in terms of song choice, which shows that Chicago native Cole never sings a song unless he can truly identify with it in some way. Two examples: Darin’s “As Long as I Am Singing My Song” and the bluesy “On the South Side of Chicago.”
The latter, “Home Fried Potatoes” and a romp through Eckstine’s “Jelly, Jelly” showed that Cole can turn bluesy or take an uptempo swing approach as the situation warrants. But his forte truly is jazz balladry.
For this night, Napoleon became the 17th member of the NJO, a formidable Florida big band directed by drummer Bob Stone. The guitarist relished its strong support as he dug into Cole’s numbers as well as several of his own interesting originals, including “Hopeful and Free” and “Make Me Rainbows.”
Cole voice has darkened a bit through the years and no longer has any hint of timbre that would draw comparisons to his later older brother, Nat King Cole. Nor did he trot out any of his brother’s classic material. There was no need, for Freddy Cole has always excelled at being himself.
One of the more poignant moments came at the end of the concert-after two eight-song sets and the Naples Jazz Orchestra had nothing left in its book for the night. The crowd of 1,000-plus clamored for an encore, so Cole and Napoleon teamed up on a spare guitar-vocal version of the infrequently recorded, rarely heard Johnny Mercer ballad “How Do You Say Auf Wiedersehen?” The song is a classic in understatement. It fit the occasion like hand-in-glove.