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Nat Cole would be proud; Marvin Gaye less so

To the Ends of the Earth
To the Ends of the Earth
By Freddy Cole

Fantasy Records: 1997

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What's Going On
What's Going On
By Everette Harp

Blue Note Records: 1997

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These reviews first appeared in the April 19, 1997 edition of the American Reporter.

No matter what he accomplishes in his own right, no matter what kind of artistic heights he achieves on his own terms, Freddy Cole is destined to go through life as Nat's kid brother.

Which is too bad, because in many ways Freddy is Nat's superior as a vocalist. Heresy, perhaps, but consider that Nat was only 40 when he died and that Freddy is now in his seventh decade. Freddy's fourth album for Fantasy Records continues a story of autumnal success, of lifelong artistic growth only now finding its fullest expression.

"To the Ends of the Earth," like his earlier two Fantasy jazz releases (the third CD was a Christmas collection), showcases Cole on a collection of jazz and pop standards, stretching from Tin Pan Alley through contemporary hits. On the new effort, songs range from Cole Porter's "In the Still of the Night" and the Gershwins' "Love Walked in" to Abbey Lincoln's "Should've Been" and Patti Austin's "You Don't Have to Say You're Sorry."

Each song is explored in detail, every nuance coaxed from the composition through Cole's evocative singing. His timing has that tiny hitch of a pause that Sinatra perfected, a slight miss of the beat that causes the listener to lean forward in anticipation of the next syllable, to be drawn fully into the song. And Freddy has that Cole family nasal tone to his voice, a rough velvet like warm bourbon.

It is, perhaps, a shame that Freddy Cole had to wait until late in life to find the fame and economic reward his brother knew early. But he is clearly in his prime now, an artist with full command of his talent carrying forward the tradition of his generation – he is one of the last saloon singers, and he is one of the best who ever caressed a ballad.

     ~ ~ ~

Everette Harp is a smooth sax player. He's a gifted melodicist, and, like fellow pop instrumentalist Kenny G, a heck of a showman. But despite his home on Blue Note Records, what he is not is a jazz musician.

All of which should have combined to allow him to turn out a respectable instrumental tribute to the late soul singer Marvin Gaye. Harp's newest release is part of Blue Note's new Cover Series, which reinterprets classic pop albums song for song; the other two releases in the series to date are Fareed Haque's "Deja Vu," taken from the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young album of the same name, and Charlie Hunter's "Natty Dread," from the Bob Marley album.

The Harp album is the most accessible of the three, which befits Gaye who was a man of enormous popularity and talent. But on this interpretation, we don't get any of the passion Gaye infused into his performances, nor any of the drama or subtlety of his compositions. Instead, we get Marvin Gaye Lite – all of the songs with none of the spark.

When one considers the stellar songs on this album, Harp's inability to light a fire is borderline criminal. Consider that for his 1971 album, Gaye wrote no less than five classic songs: "What's Going On," "What's Happening Brother," "Save the Children," "God Is Love" and "Mercy Mercy Me."

But if we look at the musicians Harp surrounds himself with, perhaps the flat results aren't such a surprise after all. Fellow light jazz star Najee is on saxophone, pop fusion pioneer George Duke sits in on keyboards, and Kirk Whalum – another light jazz star – lends his saxophone. Most mystifying of all was Harp's choice of vocalist for "Mercy Mercy Me": the chronically mediocre Kenny Loggins. Considering this suspect cast, the surprise would have been if they had produced a creative, vibrant effort.

If you have $17 to spare, spend it on Gaye's original.