"Richie Cole Plays Ballads & Love Songs," the Alto Saxophonist's First Ballad Album in His 45-Year Career, to Be Released Oct. 21

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Alto saxophonist Richie Cole has been noted for his footloose "Alto Madness" bebop style since his early-'70s association with vocalese master Eddie Jefferson. On his new album, Cole settles into a beautiful ballad groove with a quartet recorded at an intimate session in Pittsburgh, his new home base.

"Richie Cole Plays Ballads & Love Songs," Due Oct. 21

I don't play the saxophone, I sing the saxophone. It's all about telling a story. If you don't know the melody or the words, you can't tell the story.

Setting down roots in Pittsburgh two years ago has borne fruit for alto saxophonist Richie Cole in the form of his beautiful new album, "Richie Cole Plays Ballads & Love Songs." The CD, his first all-ballads album, will be released on his Richie Cole Presents imprint on October 21.

“I don’t play the saxophone, I sing the saxophone,” Cole says. “It’s all about telling a story. If you don’t know the melody or the words—which is true of a lot of musicians—you can’t tell the story.”

Though Cole has probably been better known for his footloose “Alto Madness” bebop style, dating to his early-’70s association with vocalese master Eddie Jefferson, he’s hardly been a stranger to ballads. Yet the new album came about entirely by chance.

CD producer (and bassist) Mark Perna booked studio time last September for Cole’s Pittsburgh Alto Madness Orchestra. When the horn section picked up a big-money road gig at the last minute, Perna decided to use the time instead for a “fun blowing session for our archives.”

At the end of the evening, Perna realized that 8 of the 11 songs cut that night were ballads, and all were first takes. It occurred to him that Cole had never released a proper ballads album before. “We decided to finish the album at our next session,” he says. “Three more songs were recorded, the album was mixed and sequenced, and that was it.”

"Richie Cole Plays Ballads & Love Songs" includes popular standards such as “Emily” (the name of his mother, who always asked him to perform it in his sets), “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered,” and “Alfie,” but also offbeat choices like “The Internationale,” the Soviet national anthem; “That Sunday, That Summer,” a minor early-’60s hit for Nat King Cole; and “Chances Are,” a major hit in 1957 for crooner Johnny Mathis.

Deepening and intensifying his always distinctive vibrato, Cole takes ownership of the Mathis song, which was featured on Shorty Rogers’s 1959 album, "Chances Are It Swings," but few if any other major jazz releases.

“It tells a story and has a beautiful melody, one you can improvise on without going crazy,” says Cole. “In the end, there’s no real difference between playing and singing. Chet Baker sang exactly like he played. He could break your heart with those melodies. Jack Sheldon is another example of what I’m talking about. Satchmo, too.”

Another quality that sets "Richie Cole Plays Ballads & Love Songs" apart is its intimate setting. Cole is accompanied by a cool and companionable Pittsburgh-based quartet comprised of the lyrical, light-fingered guitarist Eric Susoeff, who’s worked with artists ranging from Dizzy Gillespie to Ivan Lins, and whose primary focus is his Latin jazz quintet Salsamba, founded in 1984; versatile drummer Vince Taglieri, whose extensive experience includes work with big bands, theater productions, r&b vocalists, and jazz artists such as Bobby Shew and Sean Jones; and bassist/producer Mark Perna, a veteran musician who’s recorded six albums under his own leadership, plays trombone and bass in the improvisational klezmer band Klezlectic, and has worked with Don Aliquo, Emily Remler, and Ron Affif, among many others.

A native of Trenton, New Jersey, 68-year-old Richie Cole has lived at various times in San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas and also spent time in Chicago and San Antonio. In 2014, following a divorce, he moved to Pittsburgh at the behest of his daughter Annie, who lives there with her husband and children.

“I always liked this town,” he says of the city that claims Billy Strayhorn, Art Blakey, Stanley Turrentine, Ahmad Jamal—and Eddie Jefferson—among its native sons. Mark Perna was instrumental in getting him on various local gigs, and in getting area musicians to participate in the rehearsal bands Cole put together between tours and recording dates. As Cole’s original composition, “I Have a Home in Pittsburgh,” suggests, things have worked out exceptionally well for him in the home of the Steelers, the Pirates—and a strong jazz scene in which he’s now a full participant. •

CD release shows by Richie Cole Quartet & Richie Cole’s Pittsburgh Alto Madness Orchestra:

10/15 Quartet on the Saturday Light Brigade, http://slbradio.org, 11am-12 noon ET
10/30 Orchestra at Village Tavern & Trattoria, Pittsburgh, 3:00-6:00pm
(Quartet performs between Orchestra sets)
11/4 Quartet at Press Bistro, Johnstown, PA, 7:00-10:00pm
11/17 Orchestra at Westmoreland Jazz Society, Greensburg, PA, 7:30-9:30pm
(Quartet performs between Orchestra sets)
12/2 Orchestra at James St. Gastropub, Pittsburgh, 8:00pm-12 midnight
(Quartet performs between Orchestra sets)

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Terri Hinte