Kathy Kosins - To The Ladies of Cool CD Bio (2011) by Will Friedwald
Kathy Kosins doesn't take anything for granted; for instance, she has been one of the very few jazz singers to question the absolute necessity of long-playing albums. Since 2010, she has adapted to the changing needs of the music industry, and specifically her fans, by releasing a regular series of digital singles. So, when she announces a new album, it's abundantly clear that this won't be just an arbitrary assemblage of random tunes, but a very special collection of specific songs that have a darned good reason for being connected to each other in the album format. The new album, her fifth, is titled To the Ladies of Cool, and the songs all derive from the repertoires of four canonical female singers of the 1950s: Anita O'Day, June Christy, Chris Connor, and Julie London. This is her first album for Resonance Records, owned and operated by George Klabin, whom she describes as, "this generation's Bob Thiele, Norman Granz, and Creed Taylor."
Kosins stresses that this shouldn't be mistaken for a tribute album, in which a contemporary artist will simply "cover" the works of a canonical performer; it is even less a set of imitations. Kosins has undertaken the laborious task of sifting through an enormous selection of songs - these ladies were all extremely prolific - and finding the ones that matched her own voice and style. In taking songs that she learned from this fabulous foursome and making them work in her own inimitable fashion, she has taken her own title admirably literally. She has, in fact, truly created a "toast" to four artists who continue to inspire her, something much more meaningful and satisfying than a tribute.
Kosins has long been familiar with these artists and their songs; in fact, the new album is a direct consequence of her multi-media concert show, "The Ladies of Cool." She explains that she initially began the process by combing through the copious discographies of the late O'Day, Christy, Connor, and London - and she notes, not only the CD reissues of their commercial recordings, but she also sifted through such esoterica as V-Discs, Armed Forces Radio broadcasts, radio transcriptions, Soundies, and other film and TV appearances.
From this vast pool of hundreds of titles, she explains, "I selected 20 songs that were of interest to me. On some occasions, I was intrigued by the title of a song I had never heard of. A few of my choices were rather obscure - others were quite famous at one time, although I might not have known them." In one instance, Kosins took Johnny Mandel's famous instrumental "Hershey Bar," a melody that had been scatted wordlessly by O'Day, and, with the composer's express permission, added her own lyric to it and created "Hershey's Kisses." Thus, she made "Hershey Bar" into something else entirely. To reiterate, this album is no "cover" job! Eventually, she says, "I narrowed the list down to the 10 songs that are on the CD."
From that point, she studied and learned the songs from the original sheet music, rather than using the historical recordings as a starting point; it was just one additional way of insuring that her interpretations would be original and not clones of any previously existing recordings. The result is a "toast" like no other.
She also made a point to record the sessions in Los Angeles - then, as always, ground zero for the "Cool School" associated with these ladies. Even more importantly, this gave her the chance to work with such outstanding members of the L.A. local scene as the superlative pianist and musical director Tamir Hendelman (who was responsible for all of the album's arrangements), guitarist Graham Dechter, multiple reed player Steve Wilkerson, and percussionist Bob Leatherbarrow.
Kathy Kosins is a singer, composer, songwriter (words and music), arranger, educator, and painter. Born in Highland Park, Michigan (a city surrounded by the larger city of Detroit), she grew up in Detroit's internationally known jazz and R&B scene. Kosins was initially known as a singer of soul, rock, and funk, having worked extensively with the celebrated band Was (Not Was) as well as Michael Henderson. For the last 15 years or so, however, she has become famous as one of the most successful jazz singers of the contemporary era. As an instructor in this field, she has conducted master classes at over 100 colleges and universities. She also continues to work as part of a project called Detroit Memphis Experience.
Kosins has also maintained a second career as a visual artist, primarily as a painter of abstract original canvases - and has enjoyed gallery showings of her works throughout North and South America. Although that career is separate, Kosins is keen to note the parallels between the two ideals: "That songwriting, singing, and painting are my creative disciplines," she notes. "Music and painting are equal parts of who I am. I sing what I paint and I paint what I sing. I use the lyric and melody for color and shape inspiration."
Kathy Kosins - To The Ladies of Cool Liner Notes (2011) by Will Friedwald
There's something to be said for “blind” listening; when I first played the advance tracks for this album - bereft of artwork or even a track list - I was only conscious that here was a marvelous collection of ten brilliantly-chosen songs, exceedingly well sung, arranged, and played. It wasn't until sometime later that I realized the songs were very specifically chosen for a distinct program. Still later, when I spoke again to Kathy, she emphasized repeatedly that this wasn't a “tribute” album (and, even less, a set of imitations).
She needn't have worried - Kathy is such a distinct stylist that no one could possibly accuse her of imitating anyone. A “tribute” collection to Chris Connor, Anita O'Day, June Christy, and Julie London would, by definition, be expected to include their signature songs and hits (respectively, that's “All About Ronnie,” “Let Me Off Uptown,” “Something Cool,” and “Cry Me a River”). But Kathy has done nothing of the sort. She chose her words well when she described the album as a “toast” - it's an acknowledgement of the skills that these four ladies showed in picking songs, a tip of the hat, a bouquet of roses sent by messenger. (In fact, she's probably the only contemporary singer to do “Learnin' the Blues” in reference to Julie London - rather than Frank Sinatra - even though it's a rare song that was recorded both by London and her husband-producer Bobby Troup. Where London's version was silky and breathy, Kathy's is more directly blue - she sings as if she's already learned, to quote a London album title, about the blues.)
Since most of the four icons (all but Connor) were based in Los Angeles (although only London was actually from California), Kathy opted to record the sessions on the West Coast, in collaboration with Los Angeles based arranger-conductor-pianist-musical director and Resonance Records recording artist Tamir Hendelman. Yet in spite of the geographical compatibility, the new tracks hardly sound derivative of the originals: the new “Night Bird” (by saxophonist-arranger Al Cohn and the mysterious “Kitty Malone” - even Al's son, Joe Cohn, has no idea who that is) sounds fittingly nocturnal, with suitably moody harmon-muted trumpet. “November Twilight” (virtually unsung since London's Calendar Girl) is another haunting mood piece with overtones both noir and classical.
Ms. Kosins groups all the ladies in question under the generally vague umbrella of “cool,” yet her own singing is hardly cool in the sense of unemotional - “Where are You” is slow and melancholy, with the faintest hint of Brazilian rhythm, but “Kissing Bug” is lively and swinging - even though the subject at hand (infidelity) is the kind of topic more often dealt with in a slow torch song. Trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos engages in some interplay with the singer that suggests the selfsame kissing bug in action. Johnny Mandel's “Hershey Bar,” famously recorded wordlessly by O'Day (not to mention Stan Getz), becomes a delicious candy concoction thanks to new lyrics by Kathy.
As the title suggests, “Lullaby in Rhythm” (a Christy favorite, which she recorded on at least three different occasions), is a genre hybrid, which starts as a slow ballad, particularly in the seldom-heard verse, but then kicks into a swinging tempo - the lyrics to the contrary, no one is going to sleep around here. “All I Need Is You” is also upbeat and affirmative, while “Free & Easy” finds Kathy in high spirits, at once relaxed and excited, with a solid four beat generated by guitarist Graham Dechter, who also engages in Shearing Quintet like harmony with Mr. Hendleman.
To The Ladies of Cool is also an amazing toast to an era of music, which, though only 50 to 60 years ago, seems completely removed from the world we know in the 20th Century. It seems hard to believe that songs of the caliber of Henry Mancini's “Free & Easy” and Charles DeForrest's “Don't Wait Up For Me” were actually throwaways. (I've never heard anyone sing the latter except for Connor and the under appreciated Charles DeForrest himself, in person.) Think about an age when great songs were so plentiful that gems such as these could have fallen through the cracks. It's also hard to imagine a period when artists as distinctive as these four ladies were simultaneously jazz singers and pop stars - who not only recorded frequently but headlined in the top venues - a period when no one questioned that such a thing could even be possible. In an age when most so-called jazz singers seem to be doing the same ten songs over and over, Kathy Kosins is opening up a whole new world of possibilities.