PortFolio Weekly
December 10, 2002

Richie Cole Live at Blues Alley

by Jim Newsom

One of chef/owner Calvert Johnston’s stated goals at Blues Alley Bistro & Café is presenting top-flight nationally known jazz artists to complement his regular retinue of locally based performers. This weekend, he takes a solid step in that direction when alto saxophonist Richie Cole sets up shop with trumpeter Steve Nygaard’s group for two nights of “alto madness.”

The fifty-four year old Cole has been on the scene since the late ‘60s, joining Buddy Rich’s big band in 1969 after attending Berklee School of Music, then playing with the legendary Lionel Hampton. His recording career as a leader began in the mid-‘70s when he conjured up the term “Alto Madness,” and proceeded to show the jazz possibilities inherent in such off the wall material as the “I Love Lucy” theme, “The Price is Right” theme, “La Bamba” and “The White Cliffs of Dover.” He also included a wide swath of more traditional jazz songs on his albums, but it’s the oddball selections and humorous originals that have set him apart from other bebop-influenced saxmen.

In 1982, he teamed with country saxophonist Boots Randolph for an album called Yakety Madness, that combined crazed country cornball (“Yakety Sax” and “Wabash Cannonball”) and straightahead jazz (“Body and Soul”). In the mid-‘90s, he put the music of West Side Story though his jazz blender.

Many of Cole’s early recordings were made with Eddie Jefferson, the legendary vocalist and inventor of “vocalese,” in which lyrics are sung to the melodies of instrumental solos. Cole continued in that vein after Jefferson’s death, serving as music director for the Manhattan Transfer during the vocal group’s most commercially successful period, working on 1979’s Extensions, which yielded the Transfer’s popular version of “Birdland,” Mecca For Moderns with the Top Ten hit, “Boy From New York City,” and the critically acclaimed Vocalese in 1985.

Since that time he has worked in small group settings and with his mini-big band, the Alto Madness Orchestra. He tours, teaches, composes and writes arrangements for a variety of projects.

The shows at Blues Alley this weekend will be full of fun and musicality. The combination of Cole’s sax and Nygaard’s trumpet should be inspired, and pianist Dave Adams always adds a basketful of fresh musical ideas to the mix. Bassist Jimmy Masters and drummer David Hopson complete the quintet.

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