Hilary Kole says that when she first started working on her debut album, Haunted Heart, she was initially apprehensive. "It took me such a long time to get to this point that my initial thought was that it had to be perfect, that it had to be the definitive representation of who I was and what I was doing." It wasn't until she was into the first session that producer John Pizzarelli convinced her to lighten up. "He reminded me - and he was so right - that music is supposed to be fun, and if we don't enjoy what we're doing, then what's the point? We spent all the rest of the sessions laughing and having such a good time that I'm amazed the record ever got finished."
Haunted Heart was actually Pizzarelli's idea. "He came in to hear me at Birdland and he said, 'It's ridiculous that you're performing all the time, but you haven't done an album yet. It's time.'" The Grammy-nominated guitarist-songwriter-singer and raconteur offered to produce her album himself, and Kole took him up on it. The result, Haunted Heart, turned out to be a combination of songs suggested by John balanced against songs that Hilary has been performing for the last few years. "John was incredibly supportive of my ideas and arrangements. To work with a producer who is also such a wonderful interpreter of this music was an amazing experience."
Even though Haunted Heart is Hilary's first album, she is already one of the best-known and most admired younger singers, due to her starring roles in the long-running Off-Broadway musicals, Our Sinatra and Singing Astaire (both of which she co-created), her appearances at Birdland, The Jazz Standard, and The Iridium, and other major New York jazz clubs and cabaret rooms, and other venues across the country and around the world.
Hilary's mother had been a childhood model and actress (there's a famous photo of her in the same class with Marilyn Monroe); her maternal grandmother was a Julliard-trained pianist, but found her career as one of the first female agents in the business end of the show world, and in the '30s she booked bands at Frank Dailey's Meadowbrook, one of the legendary venues of the Swing Era. Her father is the celebrated Robert Kole, the singer and actor best known for his work in the original Broadway and touring productions of West Side Story, as well as many other classic musicals. Kole senior also taught voice, and, as early as the age of five, Hilary began her musical studies. "I would listen as he taught other pupils, and then I would sing out the notes that they couldn't hit," says Hilary. "It was very obnoxious for a five year old!"
Even though she already showed a talent for singing, her focus, as a child, was on composition. At twelve, she received a scholarship to attend the Walden School for music composition, where she spent her next six summers. Her compositions garnered three National Federation of Music Awards, as well as the prestigious Delius Award for her work "Piano Trio No.1" which received its world premiere with the Jacksonville Symphony when she was seventeen (a very good year).
When it came time to go to college, she set her sights on The Manhattan School of Music. Her main interest was in Classical Composition, but she thought to hedge her bets and also auditioned for Jazz Composition and Jazz Voice. Of the three departments, she was completely surprised to be offered a full scholarship in Jazz Composition. "I had no idea how I would fit in a jazz program," she says, "I wanted to be John Williams." While at the Conservatory, she studied with Ed Green, the illustrious Manny Albarn, and Richard DeRosa. She also sang in the school's jazz choir, which opened up a whole new world for her. "I got into singing jazz almost by accident," she remembers. "I knew a lot of standards from my father, but this was the first time I started listening to Ella Fitzgerald and the great jazz singers. I immediately knew that this was something that I had to do." She adds that a vocal teacher at MSM, Jackie Presti, became an early role model for her, who exposed her to the major vocalists and the jazz repertoire.
"At the start of my junior year, I realized I needed a job - something other than waiting tables." Ms. Presti told her that the Rainbow Room needed a young female singer to work in its steady orchestra. "She got me the audition, and when they asked for a list of songs I knew, I wrote down every song that I had ever heard of. After being offered the job, I literally had to call my mother from a pay phone to ask her where the Rainbow Room was!"
She sang at the Rainbow Room as the featured vocalist with the Rainbow Room Orchestra for a year and a half, until it closed in 1999, and that would be her major, formative experience in singing standards and jazz. She learned hundreds of songs (for real), sang six nights a week for five and a half hours a night. "It was a great band and I was in heaven," she recalls, jubilantly. "I was magically glamorized - they had me wearing all these fabulous dresses, I was learning from some of the best side-men in the business, and I had complete freedom to really hone my craft. When they closed the room, I was devastated. I was literally the last big band singer in New York."
Around that time, however, two other events occurred in her life and career: she graduated Manhattan School of Music, and she opened in Our Sinatra at the famous Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel. She had met singer Christopher Gines when he occasionally sang with the Rainbow Room band, and he recruited her for the revue, which he was putting together with the celebrated pianist-singer Eric Comstock. "When I met Eric," she recalls, "the only thing he asked me was 'Can you sing the melody?' - Apparently, I was listening to a little too much jazz." The three of them - Christopher, Eric, & Hilary - created the durable tribute to the most iconic of American entertainers, which opened at the Oak Room in 1999; over the last nine years, Our Sinatra has played thousands of performances, on Off-Broadway, in New York jazz clubs and cabarets, in a national touring company, and all over the world. "More people have seen me in that than anything else," Hilary points out, "even today, people still come up to me and say that they first saw me in Our Sinatra."
Our Sinatra played Birdland in 2003, and it was followed by a year long run of Singing Astaire by the same three creator-cast members. It was then that Hilary began a long-running and ongoing relationship with that most central of New York jazz institutions; even though she has also performed at The Jazz Standard, the Iridium, and many other major rooms around the country and the world, Birdland is her home base. In addition to working there in her own show for several weeks a year, Hilary currently sings at the Times Square club on Sundays with The Andy Farber Big Band. In the last three years, she has headlined all over the world as a solo vocalist, at festivals in Europe (Umbria, Italy; Berne, Switzerland; Nairn, Scotland), the Caribbean, and the Continental United States.
In the last few years, Hilary was fortunate enough to have enjoyed a musical relationship with the legendary Oscar Peterson. When they taped four duo tracks together in 2006, she became the last singer and performer to record with the jazz icon, who died a year later. During Peterson's remaining few months, she appeared at an all-star concert held in his honor at Carnegie Hall, and, after his passing at the end of 2007, Hilary was asked to be part of a star-studded tribute honoring the jazz legend in his native Canada, sharing the Roy Thompson Hall stage with Quincy Jones, Herbie Hancock, and Nancy Wilson. "When I got the call from Kelly Peterson, Oscar's widow, asking me to perform, I was speechless. The Peterson's friendship and support has meant the world to me, and I was so lucky to have known one of the most gracious and honorable men in the world."
In addition to working with Dr. Peterson, Hilary has performed and recorded with the likes of Hank Jones, Michel LeGrand, Mulgrew Miller and Kenny Barron. Hilary was delighted to work with John Pizzarelli, as well as her long-running rhythm section of bassist Paul Gill, drummer Mark McLean, and New York's most in-demand young pianist and accompanist, Tedd Firth, on Haunted Heart, her first solo album. "John and I wanted to songs to be as listenable as possible. Something that would put a smile on your face when you listened to it. Something you could play again and again."