by Susan Kepecs
Freddy Cole headlines the Isthmus Jazz Festival this coming weekend, with a ticketed concert at the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall at 8 PM on Saturday, June 20. The octagenarian (to be precise he’s 83), with some 30 albums under his belt, is a master of old-school swing and soft pop. He’s also the younger brother of Nat King Cole, who peaked in the 1940s and died of lung cancer in 1965, at the age of 45. Chromosomes aren’t everything, but you can’t help picking up on the genetic connection that links the two. It echoes incontrovertably through their vocal inflections, spare piano styles, and song choices. But Nat King Cole was slinkier, poppier, much more of a showman; Freddy Cole’s approach is supremely understated, and his tone’s edged with the sentiments of saudade – melancholy – that infuse the musical culture of a country he loves, Brazil. And even though both siblings grew up in the Windy City, and there’s a park there posthumously named for Nat King Cole, Freddy Cole’s approach is a little grittier, a smidge more Chicago than his brother’s.
The younger Cole’s been recording since the early ‘50s, but his career’s forever been overshadowed by his brother’s. In the ‘70s he came into his own in Europe and his beloved Brazil, but he was barely known in the States till the ‘90s. You gotta empathize with the endless comparisons – though he’s absolutely an artist in his own right, he’s perpetually been presented as Nat King Cole’s younger sib. As he told a Jet reporter way back in 1978, “being the brother of one of the greatest persons who ever lived is not the problem ... the problem is the public’s.”
Cole himself never fails to acknowledge his brother, though it’s obviously a double-edged sword. A 1990 recording re-released in 2004 on HighNote, I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me, is a case in point. On the album’s eponymously titled track – a straight-up Chicago blues – the lyrics go “I’m not tryin’ to fill anyone’s shoes. My brother made a lotta money, I sing the blues.” But there’s also a ten-minute Nat King Cole medley on that record, showcasing the more famous Cole’s best-known tunes.
Last week I reached Cole on the phone in Manhattan, where he was on tour. He was gracious, but – understandably – guarded. I tried to ask the kind of open-ended questions that have the potential to bring out full-fledged life stories (as in my interview with Poncho Sanchez last month), but Cole wasn’t in a storytelling mood.
CulturalOyster: You were born and raised in Chicago, and there’s quite a bit of Chicago in your sound – how did that city shape you as a musician?
Cole: Well, it’s very difficult to say any one place shaped me. I’ve learned what I’ve learned over the hears here, there and everywhere – Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh – I’ve been all over the country.
CulturalOyster: There’s also that wonderfully subtle Brazilian influence. I know you’ve spent a lot of time in Brazil. But what I hear in your music is more saudade than bossa – how did that come about?
Cole: I couldn’t have said it any better – yes, there’s saudade. Brazilian music is the second most popular music in the world, aside from American music. I like Latin music.
CulturalOyster: You’ve worked with players who come from Afro-Cuban and Puerto Rican traditions, like Papo Vásquez and Arturo O’Farrill [both play on Cole’s 2001 Telarc album, Rio de Janeiro Blue] – have you been bitten by the son y rumba and bomba bugs?
Cole: I’ll try anything at least once – but no, not really. I’ve spent a lot of time in Brazil. I love the music and the people, and the food – all you gotta do is look at my gut to know that!
CulturalOyster: I’d really like to do this interview without bringing up the brother thing....
Cole: Well, don’t bring it up then!
CulturalOyster: Your repertory has a lot of range – American Songbook to Stevie Wonder. Do you have a favorite style? A favorite song?
Cole: If it’s a favorite I do it all the time, so I don’t even look at it that way. I just try to make it as good as possible – to make a great presentation – and that’s it. Every song is my favorite. I don’t do anything I don’t like. But “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” is a song that’s always stuck with me, though I don’t know what I’ll be playing in your town yet. I don’t think about it till I go out on the bandstand. Most times it’s a mood that strikes me, that and audience response.
CulturalOyster: Who are your sidemen on this tour?
Cole: Elias Bailey on bass, Quentin Baxter on drums, Chris Christy is the guitarist. Bailey’s been with me quite a while. Chris comes in and subs for Randy Napoleon, my regular guitarist, who has classes to teach at Michigan State, so he couldn’t make it – but Chris is a good player. Baxter is from Charlston [North Carolina]. He’s a great drummer.