Yes, he still can play the piano. And how.
In March, Kevin Cole — today’s leading piano interpreter of music by George Gershwin and contemporaries — endured an eight-hour surgery to remove a noncancerous tumor from his brain.
Cole was back on his feet in weeks, but the gradual hearing loss his acoustic neuroma had caused in his right ear could not be reversed. In fact, surgery took away more, the pianist estimating he has lost 85-90 percent on his right side (his left ear remains at full power).
So when Cole played his first Chicago-area concert since the operation Saturday night at the Ravinia Festival’s Martin Theatre, his admirers had to wonder whether he could wend his way around the keyboard as before. More specifically, could the formidable pianist (who lived in Chicago from 1994 to 2016) still conjure the sound of jazz-tinged, 1920s and ’30s American popular music as no other living pianist does?
It didn’t take more than a few strains of his “Berlin Film Fantasy,” the opening work on this “Kevin Cole and Friends” concert, to realize that his pianism has sacrificed nothing to his medical travails. For the robustness of Cole’s sound, clarity of his touch and buoyancy of his approach to rhythm were thoroughly intact.
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Whether the joy of this performance owed to Cole’s relief at being back at work or simply the continued evolution of his art is beside the point. More important, the world has not lost the singularity of his art.
Listen to Cole play his medley of Berlin hits such as “Cheek to Cheek,” “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” and “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” and you’d swear you were hearing the soundtrack to a 1930s Astaire-Rogers movie musical. Exactly how Cole manages to articulate this music so that it pristinely evokes the period — while steering fully clear of nostalgia — remains a mystery, but a few Cole signatures shed light on the question.
For starters, Cole produces a rhythmic bounce that once was de rigueur among Hollywood and Broadway pianists but amounts to a nearly lost art today. Then, too, Cole threads several melodic lines simultaneously through his arrangements, conveying the sound and texture of not one piano but two or three. In a way, this work recalls historic piano rolls, in which the makers punched extra holes to produce more notes than any pair of hands could dispatch.
Unless they’re Cole’s hands.
But there was more to Cole’s work than the Tin Pan Alley glitter of his pianism and the rhythmic surge of every uptempo tune he played. In his “A Shine on Your Shoes” Overture, he captured the nocturnal romance of the Dietz and Schwartz standards “Dancing in the Dark” and “You and the Night and the Music,” as well as the boundless energy of the same songwriters’ “That’s Entertainment” and “A Shine on Your Shoes.” And in “Marvin’s Medley,” an homage to Cole’s friend and colleague Marvin Hamlisch, Cole proved he can find the cadences to music from the second half of the 20th century as well as he does the first.
Baritone Rod Gilfry epitomized those challenges in a ponderous version of “Some Enchanted Evening,” from “South Pacific,” his flat-footed downbeats and overripe vibrato a model of how not to sing this repertoire. He made up for it in “Joey, Joey, Joey,” from “The Most Happy Fella,” its aria-like lines and low-register exhortations better suited to his gifts and his instrument. And Ryan VanDenBoom affirmed that audiences never will tire of a classic song-and-dance man’s charms.
As the evening’s grand finale, Cole played Gershwin’s outrageously difficult solo arrangement of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Though Cole’s pianism was not note-perfect here, its spirit and style were as close to Gershwin’s as one might hope to hear at this late date.
Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.