There's a special kind of magic that comes with musical maturity. It's an inherent ease, an innate knowing. Unquestionably in her prime, Natalie Cole's consummate artistry is on full display on Ask a Woman Who Knows, her first new album in three years and her all-important debut for Verve Records. Effortlessly blending jazz and pop with her ever-soulful approach, Cole's 2002 set brings new life to a selection of songs that she carefully handpicked with producer Tommy LiPuma, one of the producers of the singer's groundbreaking multi-platinum, multiple Grammy( award-winning 1991 Unforgettable, With Love album (a tribute to her father, pioneering legend Nat "King" Cole).
Some, like "So Many Stars" (a Sergio Mendes composition with lyrics by Alan and Marilyn Bergman) and "The Music That Makes Me Dance" (the Merrill-Styne chestnut from Funny Girl, popularized by Barbra Streisand) may be familiar but others - like the beautifully poignant "I Haven't Got Anything Better To Do" and the title cut (first recorded by Dinah Washington) can best be described as rare gems.
At home in the company of an intimate quintet of superb musicians backed by sophisticated orchestra arrangements on several numbers, like the title track and "I Told You So", or in a big-band jazz setting accompanied by The Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra (with arrangements by John Clayton) on tunes like "It's Crazy" and "Soon" (both of which she first heard sung by Sarah Vaughan), Natalie Cole brings sensitivity, sass, swing, and soul to every cut.
With Cole's natural gift for lyrical interpretation, LiPuma's masterful production and a cadre of top-flight musicians including Verve labelmates Joe Sample and Roy Hargrove, along with Christan McBride (bass), John Pisano (guitar), Ron Mounsey (keyboards) and Lewis Nash (drums) among others, the album shines a light on thirteen songs that speak to various aspects of love. For Cole, Ask a Woman Who Knows is a particularly personal record: "The music on this album is very romantic and reminds me of what my husband and I have in our relationship. Songs like "You're Mine You", which I first heard by Sarah and "My Baby Just Cares For Me", which Nina Simone made popular, reflect what I was experiencing at the time we were recording. I kinda messed with "My Baby Just Cares" and made it my own but the sentiment is the same: like some of the other songs on the album, it's about the happy and light moments in a relationship."
In similar mode is the sassy "Tell Me All About It", a Michael Franks song that Cole says "has a lot of personal significance for me. It's from his 1983 album Passionfruit. That whole record had such a soothing impact on me when I was going through some rough times."" With a sparkling arrangement by Alan Broadbent, "Better Than Anything" provides another upbeat moment on the album. A duet with labelmate Diana Krall, the song - first done in the mid-'60s by Irene Kral, fairly swings: "I saw Diana in concert and I asked her if she was up for doing a song with me. It turned out to be real fun. You can hear that at the end when we're doing a little girl talk."
Ask a Woman Who Knows is a showcase for Cole's enduring artistry. A song stylist capable of putting her stamp on diverse musical styles from torch songs to gospel-based R&B, Cole says that some of the songs on her Verve Records debut "were very challenging for me vocally. I never saw anyone else perform the songs on the album so I really had to create a vibe. The key is keeping the essence of what the songs represent, capturing what makes them special . . ."
Her soul-searing interpretation of "Calling You" (from 1988's Bagdad Café soundtrack) has just the right touch of melancholy, a quality she also brings to "I Haven't Got Anything Better To Do" , a relatively obscure tune originally recorded by Dee Dee Warwick. Cole explains, "When we were preparing for the album, I worked with Dick LaPalm. He's an old friend of my father's and he's helped us in the past with picking songs. He must have sent me sixty or seventy songs and I listened to every one of them! With a couple of exceptions, they're relatively obscure except to real diehard fans of the artists who have done them before."
For Cole, recording ASK A WOMAN WHO KNOWS represented an important creative reunion with producer LiPuma, with whom she worked on Unforgettable, With Love and 1993's follow up Take a Look. She notes, "We've been trying to find ways to work together since he went to Verve. When I was looking for a new recording home, going to Verve and working with Tommy was a natural fit. He's been doing the kind of records I love, so we had a great time making this album."
An artist whose work has been making an impact on the music world since her 1975 debut album, Inseparable, (which went gold and won two Grammy awards) Cole brings a career rich in achievement and accomplishment to her new relationship with Verve Records. As the daughter of one of the most important vocalists of the 20th century, Cole was exposed to the music of artists like Ella Fitzgerald, Vaughan and Dinah Washington at an early age. By the time she had reached her teens, she was also listening to the soulful sounds of Aretha Franklin and the rock and roll of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.
All of those influences helped inform Cole's own musical choices. Her musical heritage, married with her love for pop, rock, R&B and gospel, combined to form her highly personal, distinctive vocal style. The record-buying public was instantly smitten: winning a Grammy as Best New Artist in 1976, she racked up an astounding thirty charted singles over a fifteen-year period including now-classic tunes like "This Will Be", "I've Got Love On My Mind" , "Our Love", and in the '80s, "Pink Cadillac" and "I Miss You Like Crazy". The recipient of countless accolades including NAACP Image and Soul Train Music Awards, Cole has enjoyed an ongoing love affair with music buyers worldwide, resulting in major best-selling albums including 1976's Natalie (gold), 1977's Unpredictable and Thankful (both platinum) and 1979's I Love You So (gold).
Natalie Cole's career reached new heights in the early '90s: the revered and critically acclaimed Unforgettable, With Love sold an amazing fourteen million copies worldwide and earned seven Grammy Awards. In addition to its sales success, the album catapulted the internationally renowned performer to a new level of recognition and acceptance. Performing songs first made famous by her father, she appeared in concert with a full orchestra; in short measure, her audience expanded to include jazz and traditional pop aficionados who were equally impressed with 1993's Take a Look and 1996's Stardust which included the Grammy-winning version of "When I Fall In Love", a duet with her father.
In 1999, Elektra Records released Snowfall on the Sahara which showcased Cole on an array of pop and R&B songs; the same year, the label issued The Magic of Christmas, a collection of holiday standards performed with the London Symphony Orchestra. That album included a father-and-daughter duet of the famed "Christmas Song" and was a logical follow up to 1994's jazz-inflected Christmas set, Holly and Ivy (for which LiPuma also had producer credits).
Cole completed her tenure with Elektra in 2000 with the release of Greatest Hits Volume 1. The album was issued to coincide with the publication of the singer's revealing autobiography, Angel on My Shoulder, co-authored with Digby Diehl. The book made its appearance on national best-seller lists, and NBC adapted the book for a television film called The Natalie Cole Story, which was directed by actor/director Robert Townsend. Cole (who was a producer on the film) won an NAACP Image Award for her appearance in the acclaimed biopic.
Since launching her acting career in 1992, Natalie Cole has appeared in a number of key roles including the much-acclaimed USA Network Premiere Movie, Lily In Winter in 1994. Other highlights include her appearance with Laurence Fishburne in the HBO made-for-TV move Always Outnumbered in 1998, and a key role in the Showtime telefilm Freak City in 1999. While her acting skills have justifiably earned her rave reviews, music remains at the very heart of a career that spans close to three decades.
The aptly-titled Ask a Woman Who Knows finds Natalie Cole continuing her exploration of new avenues for musical expression: "I like to grow and experiment and as an artist, it's about kicking the bar up a little. That's what I did with this album." Her signing to Verve Records says much about her approach as she begins the next phase of her musical journey: "People say I look younger than the music I'm doing just because the songs are older. Hopefully I can keep my youthful look!" she grins. "It gives me more access to a broader audience who get to hear some of these wonderful songs." Done, of course, with that special Cole touch and always, with love.