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Holly Cole; Photo courtesy of Royal Conservatory of Music

On Saturday, December 14th, renowned Canadian jazz singer Holly Cole and her outstanding quartet brought a “little naughty and nice” to Koerner Hall, celebrating the Christmas season in style. Holly, who resides part-time in Toronto, was making her second visit to Koerner Hall and this was her final gig of 2019.  The concert continued the popular series “Quiet Please, There’s a Lady on Stage”, supported in memory of Robert Calvin.  RCM Executive Director of Performing Arts, Mervon Mehta, recognized season sponsors BMO Financial and the Toronto Star, as well as the evening’s concert sponsor, Wawanesa Insurance. 

Holly’s all-Canadian, all-star band consists of her long-time pianist/arranger Aaron Davis, bassist George Koller, reeds player John Johnson and drummer Davide Direnzo. The band opened the first set with a slow blues vamp, and then Holly joined them to enthusiastic and warm applause from her audience, most of whom have been loyal fans since Holly emerged on the Toronto jazz scene about 30 years ago.  The tune was Christmas Blues, from her 1991 EP of the same name, and it highlighted the sultry quality of Holly’s voice, her dynamic breath control, and her use of timbre to inflect and tease out nuances and interpretations of melody that always are intriguing and engaging. Johnson, a stalwart of the Toronto jazz scene, contributed a full and throaty solo on tenor sax.

The rest of the evening featured many standards from the Holly Cole songbook dating back to her 1993 Juno-award-winning Don’t Smoke in Bed CD, including inventive re-imaginings of I Can See Clearly Now, Cry (If You Want To), Que Sera, Sera and Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday, which was her encore number. A bluesy version of Me and My Shadow, from Treasures 1989-1993, highlighted the ease with which she riffs with her voice, in this case dialoguing with Johnson’s flute. Also from that album and presented as a charming duet between herself and pianist Davis was Gershwin’s Someone to Watch Over Me, introduced as the first song that she and Davis ever played together.

Holly’s ability to massage a lyric with varying voice textures in absolute sympatico with the subtleties of the band’s accompaniment was never more evident than in Moonglow, from 2003’s Shade, and which featured an exquisite and delicately thought-out solo from Davis. She and the band ripped through an energetic version of Charade, from her 2007 self-titled album, featuring a blistering soprano sax solo from Johnson. Her own composition – You’ve Got a Secret – from 2012’s Night album, got the audience into a finger-snapping groove, and this original song was accompanied only by bass and clarinet – very entertaining. A rockabilly-style Down, Down, Down, from 2012’s Steal the Night, saw Holly playing with or bending tempo much like Dali would bend visual images, to similar startling effect. On Tea for Two, Holly was joined by Direnzo on high-hat and Koller on bass for an exercise in deconstructing a popular tune and rebuilding it in an entire new and exciting way, with lyrics sung at break-neck pace. Finally, They Can’t Take That Away from Me and Ain’t that a Kick in the Head, both from Holly’s latest self-titled album released in 2018, highlighted the versatility of her voice and style, ranging from evocative melodic improvisation to swinging, rhythmically punchy interplay with her talented ensemble.

Mixed in throughout the two sets were plenty of familiar and perhaps not-so-familiar seasonal songs.  Two Thousand Miles, from 1991’s Christmas Blues album, really illustrated the power and appeal of Holly’s low range singing. Not many alto or contralto singers can manage this with the sustained and luxurious feel that she creates. On this song, Direnzo’s savant-like drumming conjured to mind the image of a painter working with a canvas, so deft and meaningful were his brush strokes. 

On the naughty side of things, Santa Baby had a bit of The Stripper vibe to it, while I’d Like You for Christmas was introduced as the sexiest Christmas tune you’ll ever hear – and it was! Johnson’s tenor sax solo was rich and expressive, reminding this listener very much of the great Paul Gonsalves. Another fun touch was the lush back-up harmonies provided by Direnzo, Koller and Johnson.

The concert’s first half was concluded with a rollicking rock version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.  Contrasting that finish was a gentle blues opening to the second half with the quartet only performing Guaraldi’s Christmas Time is Here. Rounding out the seasonal selections were This Christmas, Maybe This Christmas and I’d Like to Hitch a Ride with Santa Claus.

The encore number – Everyday Will Be Like a Holiday – performed in a rock-shuffle groove, was Holly’s opportunity to acknowledge the individual talents of each of her band members, and each of them took brief turns riffing on well-known Christmas melodies:  Johnson on Jingle Bells, Koller with a bow-tapping Little Drummer Boy joined by Direnzo in a mini jam, and Davis with a haunting What Child Is This?, which easily morphed back into the shuffling Holiday with the audience merrily clapping along. 

All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening of fun and unpretentious jazz music in the spirit of the Christmas season.  Holly Cole has forged a very successful international career as a homegrown jazz singer, and she needs to be regarded in the same company as any of the great jazz singers that our country has produced.

Review by Jeff Mitchell
Toronto ON December 14th 2019

Holly Cole: Christmas Time is Here​