Holly Cole with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra At Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on Friday
If it's Christmas, Holly Cole must be playing at Roy Thomson Hall.
In what has become a seasonal tradition, the jazz singer has enlisted the help of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and taken her sultry voice down to King Street for several years now. The idea is lovely and as Friday night's date showed, has not lost any of its charm over time. For Cole fans in particular, the night seems to have turned into a not-to-be-missed opportunity to inject some glamour into a date. Girls get to wear strapless velvet numbers, while at least one boy was seen making a tricky leap just so he could hold a door open for his friend.
Cole sets the tone for the night's playful sense of enchantment. She's always seemed to mix a diva's carriage and voice with a joker's insouciance. Appearing in a floor-length, purple velvet dress with a white fur collar, pencil-thin stilettos peeking from underneath the train, she looked every inch the cabaret singer. Except most cabaret singers don't complain repeatedly that their dress gets in the way of their dance moves. And surely few divas worry about where their mothers are sitting because it's making them nervous. To the delight of her hometown crowd, Cole did both.
The lightness of the in-between-songs prattle was matched by the songs in the repertoire. On previous occasions, Cole liberally sprinkled some darker standards throughout the set. Her voice, a honey timbre that resonates with emotion, is a precise instrument that reaches into a listener's heart. On soulful numbers, Cole can move and soothe at the same time.
This year, however, Cole released an album of seasonal tunes entitled Baby, It's Cold Outside, and much of the two-set concert was a showcase for many of its lighter confections. Which is not to say that sassy tunes like Eartha Kitt's Santa Baby or Louis Armstrong's Zat You Santa Claus lacked power. They simply paled slightly when compared to some of the show's more evocative songs.
Among the latter group was Merle Haggard's If We Make it Through December. Cole imbued the hope-against-hope lament of a parent laid off "from the factory" just before the holidays with a thoughtful tone.
The same depth was evident in Black is the Colour of my True Love's Hair and The Briar and the Rose, both of which also showcased the TSO. On Briar, in particular, Cole's voice was echoed by the horns and she in turn responded to their call. On Black is the Colour,the TSO strings haunted the melody so that one could imagine Nina Simone's smoky presence filtering through the notes.
Yet, despite these many high points, there had to be a small sense of disappointment that the seasonal theme was enforced. When Cole, for example, launched into Make it Go Away, a song from a few years back, it felt like an old shoe for both band and audience: well-worn and much better for the wear. It also made one wonder how some of Cole's Santa-Claus-exempt numbers could sound backed by a symphony orchestra. Hopefully, that question will be answered next year.