Sometimes you think you know an artist—and then they blow you away with a recording that reveals their deeper self. Since emerging in 1998 with his debut album Stay Awhile (after being part of keyboardist Brian Culbertson’s band for several years), Chicago born bred saxophonist Steve Cole has racked up numerous #1 contemporary jazz radio hits, released five popular solo albums and been part of The Sax Pack (with Jeff Kashiwa and Kim Waters), the smooth jazz equivalent of Frank, Sammy and Dean, with two popular recordings to their credit.
While he called his last solo CD True, there’s no doubt that the muscular tenor player is expressing his truest musical heart ever on Moonlight, a lushly orchestrated collection of uniquely chosen pop classics and standards. Drawing on his classical sax chops and working with Windy City based orchestrator and arranger Michael Cunningham and The Millennium Chamber Players of Chicago, Cole translates passion into seduction, drawing on a unique array of influences from different eras—Burt Bacharach, The Beatles, Sarah McLachlan, James Taylor, The Guess Who and John Williams.
Such an album was probably inevitable, considering that two lesser known aspects of Cole’s background found him appearing as a finalist in the Chicago Symphony’s prestigious Young Artists Competition and studying at Northwestern with renowned classical saxophonist Fred Hemke. But the trigger for Moonlight was actually a DVD viewing of the 1995 film Sabrina, a remake of the 1954 Billy Wilder film starring Audrey Hepburn. Cole fell in love with John Williams’ score, particularly the lush and beautiful piece “Moonlight,” which evolved into the foundation of the new project. Not long after, Cole played a concert featuring just his tenor and an acoustic rhythm section and his dad suggested he make a stripped down album featuring his “beautiful tone” in a stripped down setting. Cole had always dreamed of performing a concert on stage with strings, and Moonlight is now the first step towards that goal.
The artistry of the album is due to two elements besides his warm and soulful tenor. First it’s the mesh of those lovely, intimate and frequently soaring orchestral arrangements with the seductive harmony and rhythms of Mike Logan on keyboards, Yellowjackets great Russ Ferrante on piano (on Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel”), Steve Rodby from the Pat Metheny Group on bass and Dale Prasco on acoustic guitar. Then it’s the unique choice of material, starting with the relatively obscure Williams title cut and covering Great American Songbook and rock era history—from James Taylor’s “You Can Close Your Eyes” and Burt Bacharach’s “The Look of Love” to “The Long and Winding Road,” “You Don’t Know Me,” “Cry Me A River” and lesser known tunes like “(I’m Afraid) The Masquerade Is Over” (which has been recorded by Stevie Wonder and Billie Holiday, among many others) and “Undun” (by The Guess Who).
On first listen, it might be easy for smooth jazz fans who only know the pop/R&B side of Steve Cole to think this is just an obligatory covers album. But a deeper listening and understanding takes us into the heart of the artist like never before. Give Moonlight a shot!