The Judy Garland Project
April 3, 2016
Reviewed by John Hoglund for Cabaret Scenes
Judy Garland would be thrilled with this album. Hilary Kole is a gold coin in a fountain of tarnished excuses for talent running around today. This tribute to Garland the artist and her songs is sure to get a lot of attention based on Kole’s exceptional musical intelligence and natural talent. All the Garland classics are here and Kole nails them one by one. It starts with the fact that this respected jazz stylist brings new meaning to this material without once losing their original intent or trying to emulate. The mastery she has over her own voice is obvious. She makes other Garland tributes seem like poor imitations of the originals that were so memorable. Taking on the hits of a revered powerhouse like Garland can be daunting to anyone. Kole has no problem vocally as she has proven in her jazz concerts over the past decade. Her voice has always been exceptional. Her musicianship is nonpareil in a field where many take the easy road. Guided by the gifted John di Martino at the piano in a mix produced by Richard Barone, this album stands alone in the plethora of discs paying homage to one of the most beloved and relevant singers of the twentieth century.
Garland is in a vocal league with Sinatra in terms of greatness and legendary status (albeit different life paths). In fact, she was a major movie star while he was still finding his way with an occasional band gig in the beginning. On this CD, Kole uses her voice like an instrument that takes on new meaning. In doing so, she breathes new life into these songs material and, through her remarkable talent, becomes the lifeblood of what timeless music is all about. Like Garland, who could sing anything, Kole is a stylist and connoisseur of all things that preserve the Great American Songbook. A perfect example is “Just in Time” (Styne/Comden/Green). Starting haltingly (the Garland arrangement was by Kay Thompson and Mort Lindsey), the tempo increased. Kole has fun singing it big band style with a rousing drum solo (Aaron Kimmel) right in the middle giving it a new spin that is carefree. Likewise with Garland’s “The Man That Got Away” (Arlen/Gershwin), Kole personalizes it in a different way. Where Garland drenched every emotional avalanche possible from this soaring torch song, Kole is looser, less dramatic and lets it flow like a story she once lived. In this particular case, more emotion, due to the wrenching subject, might be called for in spite of such strong vocals. Kole’s blend of relaxed and sultry vocals on the ballads has often been her calling card. Too, she infuses every melodic line with a knowledgeable underpinning that enhances the meaning repeatedly. It is just this quality that makes her able to own these songs the way Garland did.
More highlights include a trenchant reading of “It Never Was You” (Weill/Anderson) that is almost spiritual. No one but Hilary Kole could breathe renewed life into such epic ballads as a tender “A Cottage for Sale” (Robison/Conley), a plaintive “Embraceable You” (the Gershwins), and “Look for the Silver Lining” (Kern/DeSylva) and “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” (Hanley), both given a swing treatment. Other classics include “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do It)” (Monaco/McCarthy) and “I Wish I Were In Love Again” (Rodgers and Hart). Wrapping it up with Kole’s arrangement of Garland’s signature “Over the Rainbow” (Arlen/Harburg) is poignant, with crystal clear vocals that are transcendent. Clarity, enunciation and such original delivery make Kole one of today’s most important and valued singer/musicians.
The impressive band following di Martino’s lead includes the aforementioned Kimmel as well as Paul Gill (bass), Joel Frahm (sax), Christiana Liberis and Juliette Jones (violins), Stephanie Matthews (viola) and Reenat Pinchas (cello).