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Beyond words and borders 

Atlanta's Freddy Cole takes his musical legacy abroad

You may know that vocalist/ pianist/composer Freddy Cole is an international recording artist and performer -- that he received a Grammy nomination for his 2000 CD, Merry Go Round, and critical praise for last year's Rio de Janeiro Blue. You also may know that he can sing in six different languages and that his older brother was Nat King Cole.

But you may not know that for 31 years, Cole has lived in Atlanta. That's because, unfortunately for local jazz fans, Cole can rarely afford to play in his hometown.

"I work all over the world as a 'name' international act," says Cole, 70, who at press time was set to fly to New York to complete recording on his next album before embarking on a brief tour of Malaysia. "To work in Atlanta for $100 or whatever you get on the door [cover charge] -- and that's basically what they've narrowed things down to around here -- I can't do that. That's crazy."

Make no mistake: Cole respects local jazz players and venues ("they deserve your support"). But he is clearly is in another league, which makes his performance Saturday at Spivey Hall all the more noteworthy.

Cole is in his 50th year as a recording artist, having cut his first single, "The Joke's on Me" (backed with "My Mama Didn't Raise No Crazy Kid") for Chicago's Topper label in 1952. The Windy City native grew up in a musical household. Nat worked with brother Eddie in Eddie Cole's Solid Swingers; they made their first recordings together in 1936. (Brother Ike, closer in age to Freddy, would later make his mark as a drummer.) These family ties led to some remarkable visitors to the Cole household, although it all seemed routine for young Freddy.

"When Nat and Eddie would come home, come off the road, you'd come home from school and you might see Duke Ellington sitting there at the house," remembers Cole. "You might see [Count] Basie; you might see Billy Eckstine. They were friends of [Nat and Eddie], so they would come by. It wasn't anything out of the ordinary. My mother would always cook for the guys, so in that sense it was just a natural thing."

Twelve years younger than Nat, Freddy was not awed by his older brother's success. In fact, Freddy was headed for a football career until an injury forced him to reconsider. "I look back on that as a blessing," he recalls. "Fortunately, I'd always played music, so it wasn't a drastic change for me to start playing music 'cause I got hurt playing football. This was the next best thing I could do."

Cole moved to New York in 1951, studying at the Julliard School of Music before earning a master's degree at the New England Conservatory of Music. He then spent months on the road working with Earl Bostic. Later on, he developed his style and repertoire working New York clubs, supplementing his income by recording commercial jingles for radio and television. It wasn't until the 1970s that Cole's career went global, with tours and recording opportunities in Europe, Japan and Brazil.

"I can't point to any one particular thing [that triggered it]," Cole recalls. "It was just being aware of what was there to do. I had the opportunity to play and record in Europe, and travel to Japan and Brazil. When I had a big hit record in Brazil, that really stepped it up a notch. And then I began to sing in different languages. [It was] one step at a time."

Cole's star continued its steady ascent through the '80s and early '90s. He received increasing recognition from his peers while recording intermittently, cutting the aptly titled I'm Not My Brother, I'm Me for the Sunnyside label in 1990 and Live at Birdland West for LaserLight in 1992. Cole's circumstances changed for the better after he signed with Fantasy, releasing his first major-label CD, the critically acclaimed A Circle of Love in 1993.

"Then we built some continuity, getting played regularly on some jazz stations around the country, and people began to know who Freddy Cole was," he recalls. "I wasn't just Nat Cole's brother. They found out from my recordings where I was coming from."

Comparisons between Freddy and Nat Cole -- who died in 1965 of lung cancer at age 47 -- are inevitable. Like Freddy, Nat was a gifted jazz pianist. In fact, Nat had what amounted to two careers. He's best known, of course, as the smooth pop vocalist who enjoyed tremendous success following the release of "Mona Lisa" in 1950. However, Nat had been leading a jazz trio and recording since the mid-'30s, and his instrumentation (piano, guitar and bass) inspired Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal and others to follow suit.

Was having a famous sibling a blessing or a curse? Neither, Cole says. In fact, as a young man (he was a pre-teenager when Nat's career took off), Freddy wasn't particularly eager to follow in his brother's footsteps. In fact, he hardly seemed to notice them.

"It didn't dawn on me about doing music or anything," Cole says. "I was happy that that was my brother [enjoying success], but it didn't have any kind of special influence at all."

Still, he admits that "had there not been a Nat Cole, there might not have been a Freddy Cole," musically speaking. But while being Nat's brother may have opened doors initially, "when doors open you still got to go in there and perform -- and if you can't do what you're supposed to do, people don't care who you are."

To complete the comparison, Freddy's voice has a coarser, husky quality than did Nat's. Adjectives like "smoky" and "silky" show up frequently in describing his vocals.

And what about those various languages? In addition to English, Cole sings in Spanish, French, German ("a little German," he says), Portuguese (the language of Brazil), and a dialect from the Philippines.

Rio de Janeiro Blue features a sampling of his Portuguese on "Sem Voce." In the absence of words that most of us can comprehend, his vocals take on an instrumental quality, demonstrating his capacity to tell a story with emotion, language notwithstanding.

"The vocalist has to really get inside the music to make people think they know what you're singing about," Cole says. "That's one thing Brazilian singers do that amazes me: They make you think they're singing directly to you. They get inside the music.

"You have to portray your feelings to the people through your instrument," he adds. "Some pianists -- such as Cedar Walton -- you know where Cedar's coming from as soon as he touches the instrument. Same with Ahmad Jamal.

"The feeling you create being an instrumentalist is the same feeling you create being a vocalist. You shouldn't be going out there singing a lot of words. That don't mean nothing."

Freddy Cole -- with guitarist Jerry Byrd, bassist Zachary Pride and drummer Curtis Boyd -- performs Sat., April 27, at Spivey Hall, Clayton College and State University, 5900 N. Lee St., Morrow. 8:15 p.m. $20. 770-961-3683. www.spiveyhall.org.

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