If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
That must be Natalie Cole’s new motto if her performance with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl on Friday was any indication. In almost every detail it was a direct rewrite of her appearance last September at the Greek Theatre.
The obvious question, of course, is: Does her act need fixing? And the answer is: In some respects no, in others, yes.
Since her stellar, award-winning performance on the “Unforgettable With Love” album in 1991, it has been no mystery that the 45-year-old singer has matured into a well-rounded artist, fully capable of moving easily from soul music and classic ballads to jazz and gospel. And she did precisely that, and more, before a mildly receptive crowd of 14,663 on Friday, the first of her two nights at the Bowl.
Opening with a set of brisk-tempo standards, she romped through ‘Stairway to the Stars,” “Paper Moon” and “I’m Beginning to See the Light” with a blend of vigor, enthusiasm and improvisational zeal reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald’s work from the ‘60s. A collection of love songs--"Don’t Explain,” “Lush Life” and “Too Young” among them--was rendered with a rich, soaring melodic freedom that recalled Sarah Vaughan.
There was the inevitable duet with video screen images of her father, Nat (King) Cole, on “Unforgettable,” and a roaring climax showcasing Cole’s musical preaching with a gospel choir.
All of it was done well--some of it exceptionally well. But there was also a feeling that the music was being carried by Cole’s exuberant energy rather than by any effort on her part to make the material her own.
Maybe there’s nothing wrong with that. Cole has elected, after all, to be a high-visibility pop entertainer, not a cutting-edge jazz act.
Still, her father managed, with a similar versatility, to stamp nearly everything he sang with a joyful sense of discovery. Natalie Cole has the skill and the creativity to do the same--if she so chooses--but she’s not quite there yet.
What was the Philharmonic doing while all this was going on? Aside from lending its illustrious name to the evening, not much, except drawing paychecks for its members who spent most of the night holding their instruments. Most of Cole’s accompaniment was provided--excellently--by a big band of studio musicians, with substantial, bop-drenched soloing by alto saxophonist Lanny Morgan and elegant piano backing from Terry Trotter. Charles Floyd dispensed athletic, if not especially vital, music direction.