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"Jazz Monthly Feature Interview" Hilary Kole
interview by Jonathan Widran

Hilary KoleSince launching her performing career 15 years ago as the youngest singer ever to grace the stage at New York City’s legendary Rainbow Room, vocalist Hilary Kole has become renowned in her hometown and throughout the U.S. and world for everything from intimate piano and vocal performances to shows with her jazz ensemble and special concert hall performances with local symphonies.

            In addition to headlining famed NYC venues as Town Hall, Birdland, The Blue Notes, Iridium, Jazz At Lincoln Center, The Jazz Standard and Carnegie Hall (with the New York Pops and with Michael Feinstein), the singer – whose Great American Songbook repertoire continues to expand to include more contemporary pop classics – debuted at the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel as the co-writer and star of the critically acclaimed, Off-Broadway revues “Our Sinatra” and “Singing Astaire.” She made her concert hall debut at Lincoln Center as part of the "American Songbook Series" with Jonathan Schwartz. In June 2007, she appeared at Carnegie Hall in a Tribute to Oscar Peterson, a performance reprised in January 2008 at the Canadian Memorial to Dr. Peterson at Roy Thompson Hall alongside Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock and Nancy Wilson. Globally, she has headlined at the Umbria Jazz Festival, The Montreal Jazz Festival, the Nairn Jazz Festival in Scotland, and the Cotton Club and Blue Note in Japan.
            Kole, whose discography includes her John Pizzarelli produced Haunted Heart (2009) and the ambitious You Are There featuring vocal piano duets with legendary jazz pianists (Dave Brubeck, Michel Legrand, Benny Green, Cedar Walton, Hank Jones, etc.) has just released the single “Bridge Over Troubled Water,” an impassioned tribute and song of encouragement to those personally affected by the recent tragic school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. All proceeds will go to a fund benefiting the families of the young victims.

JazzMonthly: Before we start talking about the scope of your career as a performer and recording artist, let’s start with “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” It’s a wonderful version but there will always be heartbreak attached to it. How and when did you decide to record it?

HK: The song has always personally gotten me through very difficult times and I found myself turning to it many times during the past year, including after Hurricane Sandy, which not only affected so much of New York but devastated the Jersey Shore where I spent my childhood. I performed it for the first time last August at the new club 54 Below even before all that. When the shooting happened, I was in the process of recording an original song but I put that aside because I think “Bridge” is the perfect song that collectively speaks to where we are right now as a society. I wanted any money it could generate to go to helping the families of the victims of Sandy Hook. It’s just my little contribution, but I know it can’t bring solace to any of those going through such a massive loss. On a more personal level, it represents a different direction for me. I’ve based my recording career solely on American standards and for a while was pretty elitist about it, as if there were no good songs written after 1955! As I become more confident, I am glad to be opening up to other possibilities. “Bridge Over Troubled Water” was always the song I would sing to myself for comfort in the middle of the night, and it kept calling to me. It always has the power to bring people together, and if it opens my musical vocabulary a bit, that’s the best of both worlds.

JM: Because of the tragedy that inspired your recording, was the session more emotional and challenging than if one day you just decided to record it just for its own sake?

HK: I’ve worked at NOLA Recording Studios since I was 15 and was able to pull the session together very quickly with the band I’ve worked with for eight years. It was very emotional moment, but the song is about coming together and being supportive, so I didn’t want to get too melodramatic. I wanted a positive spin. We can’t fix everything with music, but we can come together to tell these people, we hear you, we hear your pain.

JM: Tell me about the YouTube video of the live performance. Where and when was that and did that inspire the studio version? Where will the proceeds go specifically? What are your hopes as far as what your song can accomplish?

Hilary Kole

HK: The video is of my opening night performance at 54 Below last August. That was a unique show because I included more contemporary songs, and sang three of my own compositions – the first time I ever did that. I brought in a cellist because it’s a nice instrument to write an arrangement for and adds a haunting quality. The arrangement on the recording was inspired by my band’s performance that night. We’re working on the specific channels for the proceeds, but they will go to those closest to the victims. In a larger sense, the song addresses not only the tragedies people in the Northeast have experienced but also our need to come together after a contentious election year. I’ve always looked to music to help me through, and if I can give that gift to someone else, that’s my greatest possible gift. I’m always on a crusade to keep old music alive and bring them to a new generation of people who don’t know them. I’m always hoping to help people fall in love with the songs I love most.

JM: Tackling an inspirational pop classic is always challenging – for this and other songs you have interpreted, how do you put your own stamp on it yet stay true to the simplicity of the original?

HK: I aspire to find that balance with every song I sing. My approach is unique in that I always try to look at the sheet music and get inspiration from that rather than another sung version of it. If I listen to Ella, Roberta Flack or Paul Simon, I might be inclined to take things from them and I prefer to be more organic. I take the sheet music and transpose it at the piano in my key and then work through it from there. I came up with the cello part of “Bridge” simply because I wanted a mournful, mellow beautiful texture in the arrangement. That happened as I was working from scratch on my own interpretation.

JM: You’ve had a remarkable career that has taken you all over the world as a performer. You’ve also released two critically acclaimed CDs. Yet for many you are still a New York based phenomenon. Tell us about what you do in NYC on a regular basis, some of your history there and the challenges of touring and performing beyond that base.

HK: It’s amazing not only to play here, but to experience a master class every night via the opportunity to watch the best musicians on a constant basis. I play at the Carlisle a few times a year, and was one of the first artists to do a full week at 54 Below, which is a wonderful club. The diversity of NYC allows me to play big and small venues, and I’m lucky to travel at least once a year to Europe and Japan. One of the problems with doing more shows across the U.S. in places I would love to play is that there aren’t a lot of perfect sized venues. There are great performing arts centers but not every artist can fill a venue of 800 seats. NYC clubs average about 150, which is perfect size for an artist like me. I think more young people are getting into jazz and the trajectory is good. We just need more great small and medium rooms. I think diversity has helped me establish a following here, from doing residences at Birdland to the Sinatra show, which I wrote and performed with Eric Comstock and Christopher Gines.

I think my show in August at 54 Below was a breakthrough and I am looking forward to the release party for “Bridge” there on February 28. I’ve been away for a while, doing shows in Chile, Europe and Istanbul and I can’t wait to perform in NYC again. 54 Below has an elegant, plush vibe that makes me think of jazz clubs in the ‘40s, so I’m really excited about returning.

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