Comeback Kid Richie Cole Swings Through Andy’s
Posted 4/9/2013

The lively, informal ambience of Andy’s Jazz Club in downtown Chicago suits alto saxophone veteran Richie Cole. He welcomes all comers, including Ryan Swanson, an unofficial saxophone student from the Rockford, Ill., area, where Cole is now based, plus trumpeter Rick Jones, an old compadre passing through from Las Vegas. Though now living relatively close to the city, Cole rarely headlines in Chicago.

Sporting a throwback beret and shades, Cole is forced to sit on a stool onstage due to a knee injury; otherwise, he’s not sparing the horses. Local guitarist Henry Johnson, a George Benson protégé, is on hand. Johnson first met Cole while producing one of the saxophonist’s projects on the Heads Up label in the 1990s. But Cole has not met the rhythm section—Ramsey Lewis regulars Charles Heath on drums and Josh Ramos on bass—until this night. Though armed with a capacious pad of arrangements and originals, the leader has no overbearing agenda and clearly wants everyone to have a good time.

“I like to trick people into liking jazz,” Cole confided between sets, “by keeping things friendly, upbeat and familiar.”

Cole’s career was jumpstarted after DownBeat awarded him a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in 1966. He quit school to play lead alto with drummer Buddy Rich in 1969.

A devotee of Phil Woods’ barnstorming bebop technique, Cole gained notoriety throwing down with such luminaries as Art Pepper and Sonny Stitt but had his own zany take on jazz. “Richie is totally fearless,” Johnson said. “No tune is off-limits. It could be a TV theme or a folk song—he’ll make it swing and make it his own.”

It’s apparent that Johnson enjoyed backing a horn man who is totally solid and doesn’t neglect the requisite turnarounds. Despite Cole’s adherence to the verity of the melody and the clarity of his logic, he spasmodically parsed semi-abstraction and had fun with the altissimo register, of which he is a master.

Cole had no qualms ceding the limelight to Swanson, who has a hardscrabble, original approach on tenor sax that contrasted with the powerful lead of Jones’ trumpet.

During the first set, “I Can’t Get Started” featured a snatch of “Holiday For Strings” from Cole. On an uptempo “Almost Like Being In Love,” he interpolated “Four Brothers,” to the amusement of Johnson. Ramos and Heath swing mightily on “Invitation.” And on “Pure Imagination,” Cole cued the dramatic stops and codas with quotes from “Over The Rainbow.”

When the guests joined in, Cole blasted explosive riffs, repeating them forcefully so the frontline can drill them home. After an a cappella alto introduction to “Some Other Time,” Cole whispered the lyrics to the horn section; they all ditched instrumental comfort zones and sang into the mic together.

Cole claimed he was born to play jazz, since his father was a jazz club owner in New Jersey. Known for his sharp arranging skills, Cole is affiliated with a number of midsize groups, including the Uptown Vocal Jazz Quartet, Five By Design and his own Alto Madness Orchestra. His love of showmanship and songcraft date back to glory days alongside vocalese innovator Eddie Jefferson; Cole composed a symphony in Jefferson’s honor after the singer was gunned down in Detroit in 1979. When vocalese was in vogue, Cole worked with the Manhattan Transfer. He was also pioneering in less-fashionable areas, attested by barnyard jazz collaborations with country sax king Boots Randolph on Yakety Madness (Paj, 1983).

For a while, the journeyman Cole was living like a gypsy in his Dodge Tradesman 100, showing up from town to town, instigating sessions, like the “Johnny Appleseed of jazz,” as he puts it.

In 2005 he released Back On Top (Jazz Excursion), and he is still on the comeback trail, currently celebrating 45 years in the business.

After three sets at Andy’s, despite the ailing knee, Cole closed down the late-night Green Mill Jazz Club, where he went to check out the jam session. He was invited for a blow at percussionist Kahil El’Zabar’s loft concert the following day. The avant/spiritual setting of El’Zabar’s group was not an obvious fit for Cole, but he injected alto fire alongside tenor man Duke Payne.

“This is a great vibe!” Cole enthused before heading off for another jazz experience on Chicago’s South Side. “It’s just like the New York loft scene in the ’70s.”

Michael Jackson


From left: Henry Johnson, Richie Cole, Josh Ramos, Charles Heath, Rick Jones and Ryan Swanson (Photo: Michael Jackson)

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