by Guytano Parks

Cole-Natalie-Chris-PizzelloThe Cleveland Orchestra kicked off its Holiday Festival 2013 at Severance Hall on Wednesday, December 11 with a Celebrity Series, one night only performance by multiple Grammy-winning recording artist Natalie Cole. The hall was beautifully decked with festive holiday decorations and featured lovely mood-enhancing lighting effects during the performance.

The Orchestra, augmented with local jazz musicians, was conducted by Gail Deadrick, Cole’s conductor since 2000, and joined by Cole’s backup band: Mahesh Balasooriya, piano, Edwin Livingston, bass, Robert Miller, drums, Tony Pulizzi, guitar, Dave Trigg, trumpet, Alessandro Alessandroni, keyboards, and Robert Yancy, percussion, in addition to background vocalists Lynne Fiddmont and Traci Brown-Baily.

Looking elegant and statuesque in a cream-colored gown, Cole slinked onto the stage to sing a dreamy and lush arrangement of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust, the first song in a diverse program of standards, R&B, Pop, jazz and Spanish songs. An up-tempo Summer Sun followed, with notable contributions by the trumpet and piano. The brass and saxophones shone brightly in Something’s Gotta Give, nicely complimenting Cole’s smoky and colorfully brassy voice. This led to Nice ‘n’ Easy which she prefaced with a bit of banter about Frank Sinatra, long-time friend of her father, Nat King Cole: “you may know him as Ol’ Blue Eyes, but to me he was Uncle Frank.

The orchestra had a brief respite as Cole and her combo of musicians delivered Route 66 from Unforgettable… with Love, her hugely successful 1990’s album of re-recorded standards by her father. “I like to think that sometimes when a female sings a song by a male, it turns out better,” Cole quipped before singing a sultry Tell Me All About It. Warming up with the gradual swelling of the strings and the echoing of phrases by the backup vocalists, it subsided with just the guitar playing and Cole singing, concluding with a hushed whoosh on the final chord.

She followed that with selections from her first Spanish-language album, Natalie Cole En Español, released earlier this year and nominated for three Latin Grammy Awards. The rhythmic arrangements had just the right amount of spiciness and were enhanced by additional percussion sounds and characteristic guitar picking and strumming accompanied by soaring string writing.

An introspective, sweetly sentimental rendition of Smile brought a tear to this reviewer’s eye. Cole followed it with a haltingly-delivered Here’s That Rainy Day where the arrangement’s sense of ambiguity and groping effectively enabled her conveyance of the poignant lyrics. The beat was subtle as the strings swooned and the trumpet soloed in this Jimmy Van Heusen classic.

Natalie Cole turned toward the violins and harp as they delicately trilled and strummed, asking, “could you just do that for a while?” Those heavenly sounds introduced The Very Thought of You before the touching and nostalgic Unforgettable, which featured Cole in duet with the recorded singing of her father.

After intermission, the artist looked stunning in an Erte’esque gown of dazzling rhinestones set in long Art Deco lines. A breezy, new-age/jazzy My Favorite Things opened the second set in an arrangement with extra measures added between phrases, giving it a sense of spaciousness within its comforting character. Then came the holiday favorites: Jingle Bells in a swinging big band setting and The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting On An Open Fire) which she prefaced by saying, “It’s not Christmas until you hear dad sing this song.”

Cole sang Lollipops And Roses in an innocent, childlike manner, simply and tenderly advising on the proper way to treat a girl. Then she pulled out all the stops as she launched into a high-energy “Tribute Medley” of R&B hits by Luther Vandross, Donna Summer, Etta James, Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston with driving dance rhythms. Each song was met with applause, the biggest noise reserved for At Last, with its wonderful, bent blue notes.

An extended and resounding ovation brought Natalie Cole back for an encore, Let there be Love, during which she introduced her band and praised The Cleveland Orchestra. She then brought her trumpet player to the front of the stage and proceeded to engage in an impressive bout of scatting and riffing, totally bringing down the house.

Published on December 17, 2013

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