Freddy Cole recorded Talk to Me five months before his 80th birthday, and given the breathy ballad approach that has always been his métier (along the lines of Johnny Hartman or his brother, Nat King Cole), the vintage virtues showcased here are satisfyingly predictable. Yet there are a couple of things that elevate the disc over other late-period Cole outings. His focus on the music of Bill Withers (four of the tracks are written by or otherwise associated with Withers, from the well-known “Lovely Day” to the more obscure “Can We Pretend?” and “My Imagination”) coupled with the addition of saxophonist Harry Allen and trumpeter Terell Stafford to his fastidious quartet, occasionally gooses him out of his comfort zone.
On the other hand, that comfort zone retains its burnished charm and sagacity. You know exactly what’s coming after the dulcet sax commingles with the gently filigreed guitar to open “Mam’selle,” and yet Cole still gets you to tumble in, with such devices as the slight exaggeration of the long-vowels when he sings “the vI-Olins will cry…and so will I,” or the credible way he seems to just-remember that “come to think of it, it was spring.” Like all great singers, he uses his advanced years to his advantage, imbuing his lines with a “been there, done that” restraint that obscures the limitations of his range and highlights the nuances of his phrasing. Gleaning those subtleties in turn promotes more careful, partnership-oriented listening from his audience. The payoffs are random: It can be the elation when he sings “now my dream talks to me, fixes me coffee in the morning” (from “My Imagination”), the dolor when he notes, “It’s funny what a quarrel can do, after so many thrills” (on “Come Home”), or simply the effect of his voice thinning to a coarse whisper as he remembers “sailing on Cape Cod Bay” (during “Speak To Me Of You”). This mixture of intuition and craft is no mean feat — there’s little margin of error between forcing it and underplaying it. Freddy Cole continues to find those seams.