MUSIC : 'Gershwin and Cole': Listening to a Love Affair With George

Chris Pasles covers music and dance for The Times Orange County Edition.

Gershwin pianist Kevin Cole comes with the kind of press material that immediately makes one suspicious.

His bio includes quotes from "Over the Rainbow" lyricist E.Y. (Yip) Harburg ("I haven't seen anyone play (Gershwin) like that since George!") and Stephen Sondheim ("It's great to hear my songs with all the right chords!").

But the killer quote is, "Kid, if I could have played the piano like that, I wouldn't have become a songwriter" from Irving Berlin.

You can judge for yourself when Cole plays a "Gershwin and Cole" concert Friday at the Curtis Theater in Brea.

A graduate of the Interlochen Arts Academy in Michigan, Cole, 32, discovered the music of Gershwin when he was in second grade.

"I saw the (television) movie 'Rhapsody in Blue,' " Cole said. "I was just smitten by the music. I immediately went to the library and asked for books about Gershwin."

The librarian pulled out a book called "The Gershwin Years" by Edward Jablonski, who had happened to live in Bay City, Mich., Cole's hometown, before moving to New York. (Jablonski's later book, "Gershwin: A Biography," has been called the definitive work on the subject.)

"I couldn't read the entire book, but I could read some of the captions," Cole recalled. "I made a vow some day I would meet Ed Jablonski and tell him I loved Gershwin.

"That didn't happen until I was a sophomore in high school and made my first trip to New York. I pulled out the (Manhattan) phone book, looked him up and called him."

Jablonski invited the 16-year-old over and showed him copies of some unpublished Gershwin material including songs and "some serious pieces." Cole proceeded to sight-read them.

Speaking from his Westside apartment in New York, Jablonski picked up the story. "When I heard him play, I couldn't believe it," he said. "He was amazing.

"I began introducing him around and people who knew Gershwin asked, 'Did you teach him to play like George?' I said, 'No.' They all felt there was some kind of peculiar aura about the way he interpreted Gershwin. . . .His playing has the sense, the drive sometimes and the poetry, the sensitivity and the humor. A lot of people who play Gershwin play him so humorlessly or so affectedly."

Cole moved to Los Angeles last October and since then has been hustling to make a career on the West Coast. His program in Brea, which he is producing himself, is one of his first local concerts.

The program will include Gershwin songs, Preludes and "Rhapsody in Blue," in Cole's own arrangement, plus some of his own works. He will be joined by vocalist Steve Evens in several songs.

"It will be 70% Gershwin, 30% my own material," he said.

Right now, Cole is reluctant to declare himself only a pop or a classical musician. His idol, he'll tell you, managed to be both.

"Gershwin seemed to float between the serious and the pop worlds all the time, without wrestling with whether he should make a choice," Cole said. "Some critics on both sides criticized him for that and said he should devote all his time to one or the other.

"But he never felt pigeonholed. He didn't have to. I think you're cheating yourself if you do."

Cole regards himself as "carrying on the legacy of the American songwriter . . . (which) goes back 30-40 years.

"I want people to realize this is a serious craft and not something to be taken lightly," he said. "A person would be hard pressed now to say who's the main force in American music today. He'd be more likely to name an artist and not a songwriter. That didn't use to be the case."

As for playing Gershwin, Cole cautions against "trying to make the music jazzed-up or bar-roomed.

"Treat it first of all as music," he said, "as carefully as you would treat Bach or Mozart, because it belongs in that category. He's our American Mozart, no doubt about it. And I'm not the first one to say it."

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