Cabaret Scenes Magazine

June 2011

Cabaret Review of Corky Hale by Kathleen Landis

St. Peter's 

New York, NY

April 27, 2011

For many years I have heard about Corky Hale’s legendary harp playing and, as a one-time harp student myself, looked forward to this opportunity to hear her play it.  But on this occasion, she performed as trio pianist and singer. Hale digs in tooth and dagger to the essence of a song and makes it seem you are hearing it for the first time. Since the Midday Jazz Series performance, I was able to hear Hale’s exquisite harp playing on her new recording, I’m Glad There Is You, simply oozing with variegated tonal colors, excellent use of harmonic progression and an ability to accompany the vocal line, whether her own or one of the other five singers she features on the CD. Hale herself is an experienced jazz singer (her improvisation is in her timing and compression of phrasing, she doesn’t scat or dramatically change the melody), with a mature sense of space to balance her rhythmic action.

At St. Peter’s Church Midday Jazz Series, it was Hale with Boots Maleson, the “right there where you need him” bassist, and “feel the time” but “don’t beat it” drummer, Vinson Valega, both sensitive trio players. For a portion of the concert, the audience had a surprise treat hearing the Jazz Series’ co-producer, Ronny Whyte, in an accompanist role. Hale breezily left the piano calling him from out of the audience to play for her (in some unusual keys, too) so she could stand up and sing.

Corky Hale—who started piano lessons at age three, continued her piano studies at the Chicago Conservatory at age seven and began the harp when she was eight—has more fabulous show biz stories than Bruckner has notes in his longest symphony! She may have told us a bit more personal history than what was needed in a concert format versus a cabaret show, but with such a diverse and extensive career working with the who’s who of the popular and jazz music from Billie Holiday, Liberace, Ray Anthony, Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, Chet Baker to her solo performance with the New York Pops Orchestra, you’d be hard pressed to be bored.

Hale’s experience has largely been playing harp or piano with ensembles or orchestras for concerts and recordings. Although she has appeared in many prestigious cabaret venues, she hasn’t made cabaret performance the focus of her career as have Julie Wilson, Steve Ross or KT Sullivan, who masterfully create and shape that “intimate” approach to their performance.  But, when Hale gets into the song, you would never know she hasn’t spent her whole life doing just that. She puts new meaning into even the old warhorse songs. For example, in her treatment of the nightclub standard “Nice ’n’ Easy,” she put a whole new twist on the Bergmans’ lyric, “So let’s make ALL the STOPS along the way.”

In the Kern/Mercer “I’m Old Fashioned,” she used the title not only to tell the listener about herself, but made us believe that every word was written just to express who she is and how she feels about things like the seasons, the weather, and love. Ronny Whyte artfully backed her and, when he soloed, he took the piece in and made it his own with some fine interplay with the rhythm section players.  Back at the piano for Burke and Van Heusen’s “Like Someone in Love,” Hale, who makes use of the full keyboard with big band-like chord voicing, playing in the bright, edgy, but not often enough used key of A major.  At solo time, she sometimes featured her players by exchanging musical phrases with them instead of the usual trading of eight or sixteen measures. On “Let’s Fall in Love,” “The More I See You” (on her CD) and the final number, “I Want to Be Happy,” Whyte again provided her with some easy swinging lines that supported her vocals just enough, allowing her to do what she does so well—improvise rhythmically and bite into the words and shape ideas. Hale refrains from using a lot of sustain on ends of phrases, thus avoiding excess vibrato or wobble. This is one reason that her singing sounds so conversational in nature, like she is telling you what’s happened to her in a heart-to-heart fashion. One small complaint was her lack of attention to the lyric and rhythm in the Gershwins’ “’S Wonderful.” Ira points out in his book, Lyrics on Several Occasions, “The principal reason for writing this lyric was to feature the sibilant sound effect deleting the “it” of “it’s”: “’S awful nice, ‘S paradise,  ’S what I love to see.” Hale sang: “It’s wonderful” throughout the song, However, she sang it just so ’S well  that I just got into the flow that she and the trio created.

She was asked by someone in the audience to do the World War II classic, “I’ll Be Seeing You.” It was performed as a piano solo, a zenith moment in this concert. It showed her ability, without bass or drums, to use the entire keyboard and cover different roles of the rhythm section, all the while keeping beautiful control of her peak volume so the piano sounded full like an orchestra while architecting the melodic line over several registers.

Hale talked about her 40-year marriage to famed songwriter Mike Stoller of Leiber and Stoller, the two-time Grammy Award-winning team, and his new writing partner, Artie Butler (Grammy and Emmy Award nominee), composer of the cabaret favorite, “Here’s to Life.”

Throughout the performance there was a warm exchange between Hale and the audience. She made us feel like we were guests in her home, there to enjoy and share some favorite songs. Near the end, she sang a Leiber and Stoller song written for the Presley film of the same name, “Loving You,” along with a tribute to the end of April with swinging version of  “I’ll Remember April.” She was always in the pilot’s seat with every word and phrase, despite the fast tempo, perfectly fit in the rhythmic pace that she set.

Corky Hale ,with her experience, intuition and creativity, gives example to the difference between a professional singer/player and an artist. She is pure artist.