Freddy Cole, whose whiskey-warm tongue and tone “spoke” to us at the Charleston Music Hall Saturday night has few boundaries. Now a Southerner; he’s lived in Atlanta for the last half of his 84 years, even though he grew up and learned much of what he brings to the stage by way of Chicago. Cole was billed in a concert with the Charleston Jazz Orchestra to present “Unforgettable: A Tribute to Nat King Cole,” and you could certainly hear the sound and timbre of his brother’s voice at times, especially on the songs that made his brother Nat King Cole so famous, so beloved. But the night belonged to Freddy Cole.
At first, I thought he sounded a little too soft or the band sounded a little too loud, but after a few songs a balance seemed to be found and both my ears and my heart were able to open up to the lovely pairing of Cole and the CJO. Solos from CJO’s cadre of skilled musicians stood out in their own right, as we have come to expect and adore. But the addition of Cole’s own bassist Elias Bailey and guitarist Randy Napoleon, to the Lowcountry’s favorite jazz percussionist Quentin Baxter, elevated both the stage and those of us in the audience to sweet depths. The instrumental solos, the call and response between Cole and the CJO, the smiles, yes, the smiles, the head-nods in time, the times Charlton Singleton stepped away from his role as band leader to just to let it all roll out gave us a show that was both dynamic and delightful.
Freddy Cole, whether he stood with a microphone or swung with the piano keys beneath his fingers, taught us how to heed what we hear. His phrasing of lyrics in ways we were not accustomed to, his emphasis on words paired with notes and breath, and the silences… as when he did not sing a line of “Unforgettable,” tuned our ears to what is said and what is not said in a story. That is a gift. And Freddy Cole was an unwrapped gift, unbound by time or expectation on that stage on a cool March evening in Charleston, SC. After we stood and clapped again after one more song because “Freddy’s not quite ready to stop yet,” the woman who sat beside me who’d never been to a CJO concert before and had never heard Freddy Cole almost shouted “Sign me up!” And so, one gift bestows another. Thanks Mr. Cole, Mr. Freddy Cole.