Atlantan Freddy Cole: So many songs for brother of music legend

A word. A phrase. A passing remembrance.

It’s easy for something to trigger a song in Freddy Cole and it’s not unusual for lyrics to softly flow from his lips in the middle of a conversation.

“He does this all the time,” said his buddy, Lewis Helvey, who has known the great jazz crooner for more than 10 years. ”It’s really marvelous. We try to stump each other. This man has a memory that’s second to none on songs.”

The two were sitting in Baraonda Italian restaurant on Peachtree Street, one of Cole’s favorites in Atlanta — and where he is greeted like a beloved older uncle by the restaurant’s staff.

Cole, 82, has a lot going on these days. He’s gearing up for a new album project, which starts recording in June in New York, and will headline the 2014 Atlanta Jazz Festival Friday through Sunday at Piedmont Park. He heads back to Europe in July and then plays Spivey Hall at Clayton State University in December.

”I love to play anywhere I can play,” said Cole, who refers to Delta Air Lines as his “second home.”

The younger brother of Nat “King” Cole has built a reputation in his own right as a pianist and vocalist, with four Grammy nominations under his belt. He travels the world spreading his mix of jazz, swing and blues.

He rarely plays Atlanta, though. “It would be nice to play more, but it’s not in my hands,” he said.

Cole is elusive when asked to give a rundown of what festivalgoers can expect to hear. It probably won’t be the signature Cole song, “I’m Not My Brother, I’m Me.” The number delights audiences, but Cole sometimes tires of playing it.

“The song has a lot of humor in it, but I’ve moved so far past it,” he said.

Still, he’s proud of his brother and said their relationship was great. “My brother was a wonderful man. He loved the music. He loved people and he would encourage anybody.”

Cole is one of those performers who doesn’t use a playlist, preferring to go by the energy of the audience. “I just do what I do,” he said, using one of his favorite expressions.

“It’s very difficult to explain, but I can’t tell you how I’m going to be feeling at 5 p.m. on the 25th or whenever we hit the bandstand,” he said. “There’s no telling what I may play. It might be a surprise to me.”

It can range from traditional jazz or swing to Broadway or the blues.

Cole measures his words carefully. You get the feeling he’s testing you in some way. He might mention a jazz legend or sing a line from a song, then wait for you to fill in the blanks.

Longtime friend and fellow musician-composer Bill Charlap said Cole is a natural storyteller. “He’s always telling different stories with his songs,” he said. “The lyrics mean something. That is a very special Cole dynasty.”

Cole, he said, knows how to take the pulse of an audience. “When he is with his quartet, Freddy has a way of telegraphing his arrangements to the rest of the band in a way that makes it sound like they’ve rehearsed it for years. He’s completely in command without being a dictator in any kind of way.”

In a time when many artists use social media to spread their music, Cole is definitely old school. He has a smartphone, but only uses it to make calls. His big concession to technology is an iPod, which contains the likes of Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald and his brother Nat.

Cole has lived in Atlanta since 1971, when he moved his small family from the hustle of New York City to a quieter place where his then young son could run, jump and play in a yard. His son, Lionel, today is a musician as well. Cole’s wife of more than 50 years, Margaret, is battling amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, often called Lou Gehrig’s disease, and a daughter, Crystal, lives in the metro area.

Atlanta was familiar turf even before he moved here. Cole had played joints like the Royal Peacock on Auburn Avenue. He came to the city at the encouragement of longtime friend Donn Clendenon, a former member of the New York Mets and who once owned a nightclub here.

“Atlanta used to have a lot more jazz clubs than they do now,” Cole said. “At least, the local guys could get work. (Atlanta) has its good and it has its bad. There are a lot of young musicians playing but they don’t have any places to play.”

A native of Chicago and graduate of Juilliard School of Music, Cole at one time wanted to be a professional football or baseball player until a hand injury sidelined those dreams. But the injury didn’t interfere with another gift he had — playing the piano.

“I consider it a blessing,” he said. “I could have been in the way of one of those big bruisers weighing 290 pounds.”

Cole said his new album will be blues-oriented, but he wouldn’t say what it will be titled. Nor will he list the songs.

“Somebody make take it and run with it,” he said. “The element of surprise is very important.”

Record producer Todd Barkan, who ran the iconic Keystone Korner jazz club in San Francisco, is working with Cole on his latest project. He said the Grammy Awards nominations he has received meant a lot to Cole, who hasn’t had an easy time getting the recognition that he deserves as the sibling of a fabled singer — never “an enviable position.”

“You have to have enough light of your own to escape that shadow,” Barkan said.

Cole, he said, is a bit more bluesy than his brother but is still one of the best jazz singers around.

“He did it just being true to himself,” Barkan said.