Merry Go Round (Telarc Jazz)

Freddy Cole

Released May 23, 2000

Grammy Nominee for Best Jazz Vocal Album 2001



As you can see from the names on the back cover, the talent in the studio was considerable on those sunny September afternoons in which the longstanding team of singer-pianist Freddy Cole and producer Todd Barkan laid down their first album for Telarc. Looking behind those soundproof glass panels one could spot Cedar Walton, Lew Soloff, George Mraz (Lord Barkan refers to him as “Sir Bouncealot,” because, he punningly explains, the bassist is a “baaaad Czech!”), Eric Alexander, Lou Marini, and a host of New York’s finest-musicians, that is.

But what one might not realize is that the talent in the control booth was fairly formidable as well: in addition to ace producer Barkan, there were Bob Woods, supreme ruler of the planet Telarc, that fine lyricist Herb Martin (who’s “Merry-Go-Round” titles this package), and Eric Comstock, one of the foremost singer-pianists of the current generation. In fact, I was practically the only person on the entire floor whom I hadn’t heard of. Now all of these gentlemen and scholars have spent decades contemplating the ways of the great and the near-great in jazz and the American popular song. Here indeed was a brain trust of epic proportions, but even the lot of us could not answer one simple question: what is it that makes Freddy Cole so great? It’s not that Freddy has the greatest range or operatic vocal strength of any crooner who ever tickled a tonsil. Nor is he likely to displace Oscar Peterson from his traditional throne at the top of the Downbeat poll as jazz’s most virtuosic keyboardist.

Perhaps Freddy himself gives us a clue when he performs each night and describes his set as “an invitation to relaxation.” It may sound like merely a snappy sample of rhyming stage patter, but Cole hits the nail right on the head. As any music student will tell you, the second hardest thing about performing, whether on voice or piano, is trying to sound relaxed; the single most difficult thing is to get your audience to feel that way. Freddy can instantly achieve this: three words out of his mouth, and nothing, and I mean nothing, can possibly bother you. Cole is so laid back that on It’s Impossible he makes Perry Como sound like Louis Prima or Bob Goulet, who also recorded this Mexican song (originally known as “Somos Novios”) which everybody assumes is Italian.

Louis Armstrong was once described as a human light bulb, and Freddy is more a glass of cabernet on two legs (and life is a cabernet, old chum) only you won’t wind up with a headache in the morning. But this is what kills me: if Cole were merely a human valium (even a Prince Valium), he would be no more interesting than, say, Andy Williams and that Bramson crooner’s hundreds of albums of Lullabies for Somnambulant Seniors. Cole may be pure relaxation, but there’s also a side to his artistry that can only be described as exciting: he not only gets you involved in the story he’s telling, he thrills you, and keeps you on the edge of your seat, without ever losing that casual quality. It can only be described as a relaxed intensity. On that same “It’s Impossible,” Cole fully conveys the urgency of the mighty ocean and its ineffable need to keep rushing to the shore. You’ll notice that it doesn’t dawdle to the shore, or gingerly approach the shore. It rushes. And Cole puts across its power just as convincingly as he does the basic tenderness of Sid Wayne’s lyric.

As “It’s Impossible” suggests, Cole is assisted considerably by the quality of the material assembled here by himself and producer Barkan. As with previous Cole-Barkan projects, there are few tunes that will be so over-familiar to contemporary listeners as to have worn out their welcome. The only item that most everybody who buys this disc will already know all the words to is: I Remember You, and it might be said that Freddy has a familial right to that Mercer-Schertzinger classic, since it’s most closely associated with his late brother, Nat King Cole (especially the verse, which Freddy does out of tempo, a la Nat, even though he takes the refrain in swing time).

Most of the selections here are either new, offbeat, or rescued from hiding. The title track falls into that third category. It was written by two gentlemen who spent much of their careers hidden in plain sight. Bobby Scott, who had at least three careers as rock-pop singer, jazz pianist, and mainstream song-writer (best known for his hit “A Taste of Honey”), but who, for all of his talent, failed to become a household word in any of those categories. The lyrics are by another multiple-career personality, Herb Martin, best known for the words to the Broadway musical The Yearling (and, thanks to Todd Barkan, the soon-to-be recorded Ellington/Martin show Renaissance), but who’s spent a lot of his professional life as a schoolteacher.

Although never before recorded, Merry-Go-Round comes out of a great American songbook tradition-the more jovial the metaphor, the more bleak the connotation. Unlike Freud and his cigars, songs that employ the happiest of settings, such as fairs, circuses, carnivals, and amusement parks, are inevitably the most melancholy of arias, such as “I Stayed Too Long at the Fair” and the entire show Carousel. Somehow in these songs the expectations raised by such optimistic imagery, such as clowns and the merry-go-round, make the loss of love seem that much more poignant.

Even more so when Freddy Cole is singing them. If I were a songwriter, I would spend my days and nights camping out on his doorstep, offering him every inducement I could think of to get him to take on my wares. In fact, Cole is such a great song salesman that he might even be able to take a tune penned by the likes of such as I and make it sound half decent. The new songs that Cole and Barkan have selected here all sound like modern masterpieces thanks to Freddy. But again, as with the other members of the Cole dynasty (including niece Natalie as well as big brother Nat), it’s hard to conceive that there could be a song out there that’s so abysmal that Freddy couldn’t rescue it-the man could take “Sh-boom, Sh-boom” and make it sound like Kern or Hammerstein.

He also has the gift of finding the intimate angles in even the grandest material, e.g., Through a Long and Sleepless Night and Smoke Gets in Your Eyes. The first was written by 20th Century Fox’s own Alfred Newman, one of the major machas of Hollywood movie music, for a 1949 Loretta Young nun epic entitled Come to the Stable. (Interestingly, Newman had only a few popular songs with his name on them, such as Dorothy Lamour’s “Moon of Manakoora” and “Pinky,” a wordless theme vocalized by Sarah Vaughan.) “Long and Sleepless” (sounds like a vaudeville act) is a close cousin of Harold Arlen’s “Last Night When We Were Young” and Harold Rome’s French adaptation, “(All of a Sudden) My Heart Sings,” in that it aspires to almost operatic grandeur. The one major pop star who had previously tackled “Sleepless” is, in fact, that most operatic of jazz dames, the selfsame Sarah Vaughan who had put the pink in Newman’s “Pinky.” The trumpet solo here by Lew Soloff, spotted a few months earlier in the studios with Tony Bennett on his new Ellington album, is priceless.

Likewise “Smoke,” speaking of Jerome Kern, is another song rarely done by modern pop people (modern meaning anybody after Nelson Eddy), because of the classical nature of the melody and the archaic nature of the lyric (not to mention the insensitivity of the protagonist’s so-called friends-if they were to laugh after my love had flown away, you can bet that I would do more than merely chaff). It can’t be said that Cole deflates it, not in the way that Ella Fitzgerald did when she interpolated the Kern melody into a scat improvisation as “Sweat Gets in Your Eyes,” but he certainly makes it seem real. And at the same time, Cole also tackles Watching You, Watching Me, a song introduced by famed R&B singer Bill Withers about the domino effects of love and observation, and Freddy makes it sound no less eloquent.

Three other tracks are associated with other singers in Cole’s league, starting with a medley that extends Freddy’s tradition of reviving certain unjustly-overlooked gems from his brother’s repertoire. I Realize Now was cited recently by Tony Bennett as one of the first and greatest records he ever heard by Nat Cole, while I Miss You So was a major record by the Cats and the Fiddle (featuring Tiny Grimes before he joined Art Tatum) that later became a major record by the King Cole Trio. And now it’s a major Freddy Cole record. Together, the two songs form a marvelously complete and coherent statement about longing, forgiveness, redemption, and reunification.

Take a Little Time To Smile serves as a reminder about what a fine composer is Miss Peggy Lee (she wrote it for producer and puppeteer George Pal’s 1959 film of TomThumb) – particularly in her many songs for children. Working with his regular trio, guitarist Jerry Byrd takes what must be his finest solo yet on records. Cole’s re-entrance, playing with the bridge and spacing and repeating the lines “in the meantime… in – between time” more than makes me smile. Cole’s own piano highlights You’re Sensational, written by Cole Porter for Frank Sinatra in High Society (and apart from Jack Jones, barely recorded by anyone else-and oddly, never performed by Sinatra aside from the film). Although associated with Sinatra, it is utilized by Cole as an opportunity for a solo that drops the occasional reference, in its block chords, knack for dancing around the time and other devices, to both his brother Nat and to Erroll Garner (it’s very different piano playing from the kind that Cedar Walton does, for instance, on “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes.”)

Now I confess to being an extreme case. I’m the kind of guy who can stare at Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” while worrying about my taxes. I can sit through either Shakespeare or the 1970 Knicks-1 don’t discriminate-while pondering my deadline problems. And if you were to place me in front of either the Grand Canyon, the aurora borealis or Marilyn Monroe-well, maybe not Marilyn Monroe-my mind would still be elsewhere. But it’s a funny thing: the minute I hear Freddy Cole sing, I instantly get so wrapped up in the story he’s telling, that I probably would not be able to tell you my own name if you were to ask me point blank. Mind you, I don’t claim to be a representative sample. There are umpteen million individuals out there who have the ability to concentrate on Alfred Hitchcock, The U. S. Open, or Amos n’ Andy. But I know I’m not entirely alone in this. And it’s for sure that the more people that get to hear Freddy Cole, the more people will appreciate exactly what he is-in the words of another of his brother’s classics-a weaver of dreams.

Will Friedwald (author of Jazz Singing and Sinatra! The Song Is You, and co-author with Tony Bennett of The Good Life)

Track Listing:

1. Watching You, Watching Me 6:48

2. It’s Impossible (Armando Manzanero) 4:52

3. Merry-Go-Round 5:52

4. I Remember You (Victor Schertzinger) 5:12

5. Forgive My Heart 4:09

6. Through a Long and Sleepless Night (Alfred Newman) 4:16

7. If You Went Away 5:36

8. Take a Little Time to Smile 4:11

9. Medley 5:48

10. Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (Jerome Kern) 4:11

11. You’re Sensational (Cole Porter) 5:32 


Freddy Cole: vocals, piano


Cedar Walton: piano (1-4, 6, 7, 10)

George Mraz: bass

Herman Burney: bass (4, 5, 8, 9, 11)

Curtis Boyd: drums

Jerry Byrd: guitar

Lew Soloff: trumpet

Steve Davis: trombone

Eric Alexander: tenor saxophone

Lou Marini: alto saxophone, alto flute 

Gary Smulyan: baritone saxophone

Recorded September 8 – 9, 1999, at Sear Sound Studio C, New York

Producer: Todd Barkan


Have sympathy for the sibling of the famous entertainer. Folks like Jerry Van Dyke, Billy Ripken, and the Baldwin brother that made the movie with Cindy Crawford (at least he got to work with a supermodel) all have had careers in which they could not step out from the large shadow cast by their brothers. The best bet for brothers is to pick separate careers or instruments like Elvin, Thad and Hank Jones. But save you pity for singer/pianist Freddie Cole. Brother Nat King Cole passed away almost thirty-five years ago and Freddie has carved his own career, even though comparisons are inevitable.

For his debut on Telarc, Cole selected his longtime producer Todd Barkin. Barkin mastered several discs for Cole including To The Ends Of The Earth (Fantasy 1998) a date similar to this. Their successful formula is to pick popular tunes not often heard today, build them around a piano quartet, and toss in cameos by New York’s finest jazz musicians. While the likes of Eric Alexander, Lew Soloff, Steve Davis, Lou Marini, and Gary Smulyan are not given large soloing space, their presence sprinkles the finishing touches on a pleasant session.  Cole, now in his seventies, has a voice similar to Nat’s, but with a mature, husky sound. Sort of like Tony Bennett’s nineties sound, rough around the edges, creating an authentic tone. Cole can best described as a mixed between Brother Nat and Jon Hendricks. Cole chooses several songs associated with Nat like Johnny Mercer’s “I Remember You.” Along with Barkan, Cole selects a varied songbook that includes Jerome Kern “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes”, Peggy Lee “Take A Little Time To Smile”, and Cole Porter ‘You’re Sensational.” The title track by Herb Martin and Bobby Scott, recorded for the first time, is a bittersweet melody like Billy Strayhorn’s “Lush Life.” Cole delivers an emotional performance wrapped in Lou Marini’s warm alto flute. Maybe Freddie isn’t Nat, but Natalie’s uncle is fine in his own world.

Mark Corroto (All About Jazz)