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Music Review: Hilary Kole – Haunted Heart

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Life isn’t fair. No one should be as attractive and as talented as Hilary Kole!

True, Kole’s appearance shouldn’t be a factor when assessing her music. But as the blues song says, “You got to use what you got,” and the good folks at Justin Time clearly know a pleasant package when they see one. Marketing matters, and Kole‘s debut is liberally splashed with alluring photos. But image only gets one so far …

Fortunately, Kole, who honed her chops in New York as vocalist for the Rainbow Room Band (her first professional audition, they hired her on the spot!), brings a fine, clear voice to a delightful collection exploring the many facets of romance, from the giddy joy of discovery (opener “It’s Love”) to the ongoing ache of, yes, a Haunted Heart.

There’s an elegant air of romantic sophistication about proceedings on Kole’s debut. She’s backed by a fine quartet led by producer/guitarist John Pizzarelli. An old hand by now, he proves an ideal accompanist, knowing exactly where to provide unobtrusive support, and when to step up with instrumental excursions just jazzy enough to stimulate the senses but not jarring enough to spoil the mood.

With sultry jazz divas all the rage these days, comparisons are inevitable, and Kole comes closest to fellow New Yorker Jane Monheit; both sing with exceptional clarity, eschew acrobatics, and rely on subtle phrasing to deliver their message. Kole is clearly comfortable with the material, favoring a playful rather than a reverential approach, and there’s a delightful warmth to her delivery that retains an air of romance even when the songs themselves deal with heartbreak and loss.

Material ranges from the familiar (the title track, Irving Berlin’s “What’ll I Do,” Rogers and Hart’s “There’s A Small Hotel”) to well-chosen surprises (Oscar Brown’s “The Snake,” Tom Waits’ “Old Boyfriends”). Upbeat fare swings gently and seems the best fit for Kole, though she does a magnificent job on “Blackberry Winter,” a solo tour-de-force that finds her handling piano as well. Elsewhere her trio provides tasteful and unobtrusive support, with pianist Tedd Frith, bassist Paul Gill, and drummer Mark McLean augmented on a handful by Pizzarelli’s guitar.

It’s Kole’s show, though, and while there’s nothing terribly innovative here, she proves a gifted singer with an intuitive sense of swing and genuine warmth in her delivery. As romantic jazz goes, this is as good as it gets!

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