Vocalists are a matter of personal taste, like shopping for furniture. “That sectional sofa won’t match the dog, but that Holly Cole would look perfect next to the spiral staircase ascending to the guest boudoir…”
Cole seems by nature a torch singer, but she sets fire to all manner of songs. Tuesday at the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival, she broke hearts with her re-gendered version of Tom Waits’ “Take Me Home,” swanked her way through “This House is Haunted By the Echo of Your Last Goodbye” and turned a crowd of several hundred people during her first set at the Harro East Ballroom into finger-snapping accompaniment for her smoky “You’ve Got a Secret.”
Her band – drums, bass, piano and reeds – certainly knew how to make an entrance, filing in from the back of the building to the bleat of bass sax and a chorus of “Walk away, walk away,” making their way to the stage before being joined by Cole.
“Walk Away,” that’s a Waits song as well.
Cole doesn’t simply arrange, she re-arranges in search of the soul. She gathered a little trio at the front of the stage with her drummer and double bassist, what she called “a little tea party.” Although, “I’ll have a white wine with my tea party,” she said, sipping from a cup. This was “Tea For Two” but as no one’s ever heard it before, Cole scat-singing portions in an offbeat meter.
The Canadian singer’s phrasing is so brilliantly considered, so unique, that I wanted to set my head on fire, because I’ll never hear any of these songs, many of them familiar, done better than this. “Some gotta win,” she sang in “Goodtime Charlie’s Got the Blues,” filling the line with breath, before pausing… then turning on the perfectly delivered counterpoint with deadly, sad resignation. “Some gotta lose.”
Eyes were welling in the crowd for that one. Hard to do in the Harro, a big room where the echoes of rock bands past still vibrate in the ceiling. But Cole’s band played it right. Brilliantly subtle with delicate piano and a quiet heartbeat of a bass of the aforementioned “Take me Home,” with Cole changing Waits’ line, “you silly girl” to silly boy. More misty eyes.
There was also Waits’ “Down, Down, Down.” “Train Song,” with Cole and pianist Aaron Davis chuffing like a locomotive on the train that takes her away from here. What Cole called her song of “love and self deception” – although there seemed to be more than one of those – “Larger Than Life.” And Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now,” a love song recognizing self deception.
And how about an encore? “Whistling Past the Graveyard.” Because if you’re going to do two Waits songs, might as well make it three.