Cole embodies mellow jazz chic.
For five minutes on the Memorial Union Terrace last Friday night, one man's gentle command of an alto saxophone beat back the honky-tonk energy of a few thousand beer drinkers.
"I'd like to play something beautiful for a beautiful evening in Madison," Richie Cole said before revealing his emotional interpretation of the Hoagy Carmichael classic "Stardust."
With every breath he pumped into his horn, Cole evoked the bittersweet feel of life's loves and disappointments. Every pause was timed to perfection. Every rise and fall of the melody stirred a tide of personal reflection.
Cole's set was the highlight of last Friday's portion of the Isthmus Jazz Festival because his showmanship took no backseat to his instrumental virtuosity.
Cole, 60, is the embodiment of mellow jazz chic. Clad in a beret, sunglasses and a red neckerchief on Friday, he was a calm stage presence, but also a strong conductor and host.
Since the 1990s, Cole's Alto Madness Music has been the cornerstone of his act. Madness utilizes an ensemble of seven or eight players to bridge the big sound of an 18-piece band with the improvisational techniques of a quartet.
Cole relied on a rotating lineup of local players Friday night to present a Madtown version of Madness. They included the Dave Stoler Trio, Ben and Leo Sidran, and trumpeter Dave Cooper.
Cole was wise enough to let Ben Sidran's personality-rich style shine during their session together. Sidran allowed his small dog, Molly, to flutter about on stage momentarily. Then he got serious on piano and vocals. "Is life treating you like a dog?" he crooned. "Don't know which way to jump?"
Interacting with the Stoler Trio, Cole was pure grace. He moved aside when it came their turn to improvise, lifting one hand to conduct the instrumental transitions.
When Cole played "Pure Imagination" (from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory), the feeling he brought to the melody lines was palpable.
"It's the end of the day," said Cole as he introduced that song. "It's a good time to mellow out. This is for all you children out there. Come with me, and let's go together to the land of pure imagination."
That was easy to do Friday night on the shores of Lake Mendota, as puffy black clouds rolled northward over the setting sun. Preceding Cole, jazz vocalist Typhanie Monique got the evening's vibe just right. She transposed those clouds into an ethereal canvas during her interpretation of the Doors' "Riders on the Storm."
Monique and her guitarist, Neal Alger, frequently relied on jazz interpretations of pop and rock standards during their set. That was a smart choice, considering that the duo's intimate lounge sound isn't ideally suited to a festival atmosphere.
Her set list relied on Stone Temple Pilots as much as Cole Porter. Yes, Monique interpreted STP's modern rock ballad "Plush." She extended her arms to trace the notes she sang. Her face stretched and her body weaved as she scaled riffs from high to low.
Monique lives in Chicago, but reminded the audience that she was raised in Stevens Point. "You can take the girl out of Wisconsin, but you can't take Wisconsin out of the girl," she said.
By the time the Chicago Afro Latin Jazz Ensemble took the stage late in the evening, the showmanship level had been set high. Despite their instrumental skills and innovative sound, the ensemble disappointed as entertainers. They spent the greater part of their set seemingly detached from the audience. There was no visual appeal in watching guys nervously assemble their sheet music as if they had arrived late and were hustling to get organized.
Richie Cole stood out last Friday evening for one reason. He spread around a little stardust and expressed the wacky ways people feel.