In her recent one-night show at 54 Below, Alexis Cole demonstrated vocal dexterity, solid musicianship and a willingness to range over a variety of sources for her material. Her technical delivery, whether in a soothing or upbeat contralto, was superb, vocal jazz at its best. Further on the plus side, she beautifully resurrected two lesser-known slow numbers: “The Jitterbug Waltz” (Thomas “Fats” Waller, Richard Maltby, Jr.) and the lovely “You Were There” (Johnny Mandel, Dave Frishberg). Cole’s jazzy, more-up-tempo-than-usual “Moon River” (Henry Mancini, Johnny Mercer) freshly presented the overdone number as Mancini might have written it had it not been commissioned for a movie score (Breakfast at Tiffany’s). Her two-song tribute to her idol Shirley Horn provided a nifty finale set: “Estate (Summer)” (Bruno Martino, João Gilberto; English lyrics by Joel Siegel) found Cole solidly back in her comfort zone, and her encore, Horn’s best-known signature song, “Here’s to Life” (Artie Butler, Phyllis Molinary), was a Cole double threat (piano and vocals) and everything it could be.
Unfortunately, what was mostly missing from Cole’s show was an intimate connection to her audience. Lacking a compelling overarching theme—and, apparently, a director—it was especially incumbent on Cole to provide a raison d’etre for each of her songs, apart from displaying her considerable vocal chops. This she sometimes failed to do. (She announced the somewhat amorphous “theme for the evening” as “I Thought About You” (Jimmy Van Heusen, Johnny Mercer), after it had been played only as a piano solo by Matt Baker, as the show’s opener.) She dedicated “Some Other Time” (Leonard Bernstein, Comden & Green) to her grandfather and “best friend,” who had died earlier in the year at age 99. This should have made the song especially touching, but it didn’t really set the song up, and, so, the intended emotional pay-off was lost. The other, and truly interesting autobiographical bit—Cole’s soon-to-end double life as an Army staff sergeant based at West Point and sometimes singing with the academy’s band—came off more as rewriting her resume than as a relevant spoken connection to the songs that followed.
“Sweet Lorraine” (Cliff Burwell, Mitchell Parish), long a staple of her repertoire, and a song without any possibility of gender change in the lyrics without changing the title, still seemed an odd choice for Cole—except as a vehicle to show off her scatting—and then more scatting. She also over-scatted on other selections, such as Frank Loesser’s “If I Were a Bell.” Scat, at which she excels, is so welcome in jazz recordings and concerts, but in a conventional cabaret setting should be employed more sparingly than Cole did here—more like a surprise bonus, such as a chocolate-covered strawberry at the end of a meal, rather than a main course ordered off the menu.
“Sitting in” by another, unbilled, musician, a welcome feature of jazz sets that can occasionally work in cabaret, did not work that well here. Mid-set, Cole sprang a surprise: she and Baker would switch places on stage, with her playing the piano, which she does very well indeed, and him standing up to the microphone to sing Ray Noble’s “The Very Thought of You.” Apart from echoing the stated theme (I thought about you), this switcheroo was more of an intrusion in what flow there was to the act than an unexpected treat. Even more awkwardly, when Cole took to the piano again to play and sing “Here’s to Life,” she dismissed Baker from the stage entirely—with thanks. But there must surely have been some way to keep him around through her encore and her introduction of the two remaining members of her backup trio: the ever-reliable bassist David Finck and the excellent drummer Marcus Baylor, who seemed to overpower parts of a few numbers, although this may well have been caused by a sound system imbalance.
54 Below – April 8
About the Author
Robert Windeler is the author of 18 books, including biographies of Mary Pickford, Julie Andrews, Shirley Temple, and Burt Lancaster. As a West Coast correspondent for The New York Times and Time magazine, he covered movies, television and music, and he was an arts and entertainment critic for National Public Radio. He has contributed to a variety of other publications, including TV Guide, Architectural Digest, The Sondheim Review, and People, for which he wrote 35 cover stories. He is a graduate of Duke University in English literature and holds a masters in journalism from Columbia, where he studied critical writing with Judith Crist. He has been a theatre critic for Back Stage since 1999, writes reviews for BistroAwards.com, and is a member of The Players and the American Theatre Critics Association.