The sleekly sophisticated art of singer-pianist Freddy Cole

Freddy Cole

Jazz pianist and singer Freddy Cole performs at the Jazz Showcase in Chicago in 2011. (Marina Makropoulos/for the Chicago Tribune / April 26, 2013)

There once was a time when elegantly suited men serenaded late-night listeners with suavely sung love songs, their fingers gliding easily across the keyboard, their sideman swinging gently behind them.

The scene played out in jazz rooms across the city, but especially on the South Side, the music's ancestral home in Chicago.

That more romantic era lives on mostly in the memories of those old enough to have lived it, but it flickers back into view for everyone else whenever octogenarian Freddy Cole sits down at the piano. A younger brother of Nat "King" Cole, he conjures his sibling's ultra-sophisticated delivery but with more grit in his voice and somewhat less action at the piano.

Freddy Cole, in other words, is not his brother's keeper, or at least not a keeper of his brother's legacy. Instead, the younger sibling offers his own, deeply personalized view of jazz singing and pianism, though it springs from the same milieu that gave us the great Nat Cole.

Leading a quartet Thursday night at the Jazz Showcase, Freddy Cole made it clear from the opening phrases of "It's Crazy, But I'm in Love" that he was in robust form, vocally and pianistically. It didn't take more than a few notes on the keyboard before he had firmly established unstoppable swing rhythm, notwithstanding a moderate tempo.

Once he began to sing, the man's appeal was assured. You simply don't encounter phrasing as seemingly nonchalant yet polished as this very often anymore. It takes a lifetime, really, to learn to make a lyric sound as colloquial as speech, yet as musical as an instrumental solo. And Cole has spent his career mastering the art.

Because Cole opened "How Little We Know" with a hint of a Brazilian backbeat from drummer Curtis Boyd, the singer was able to float his melodic line, rather than swing it. Yet when the band switched to earthier, straightforward jazz rhythm, Cole's vocal phrases took flight, ideas bounding from one offbeat to the next.

Then the performance took another left turn, with Cole's extended piano solo, his touch warm, his rhythms buoyant, his chords crisply voiced. No, he may not command the keyboard virtuosity and inventiveness of his more famous elder brother, but he showed an instrumental subtlety and finesse of his own.

In ballads, too, Cole sang quite persuasively. With "Mam'selle," for instance, he offered an object lesson in how to project vocal tone at a hushed volume level. More important, he reminded listeners that there's more to delivering a ballad than singing softly and slowly: He also told a story, delivering its verbal twists and turns with relish.

Cole, 81, always draws cheers from the hometown crowd when he sings "On the South Side of Chicago," a salute to his family's roots and our shared cultural past. But as Cole sang about the old days at 63d and Cottage Grove, his voice at full cry, you knew he wasn't just crooning a tune – he was singing his own story.

Guitarist Randy Napoleon, bassist Matthew Parrish and drummer Boyd turned in solid, if somewhat generic, work. Or maybe they just were overshadowed by Cole, whose vibrancy made everything around him seem a little dull by comparison.

hreich@tribune.com

Twitter @howardreich

Freddy Cole Quartet
When
: 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: Jazz Showcase, 806 S Plymouth Ct.
Admission: $25-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com

CHICAGO

More