There's something to be said for "blind" listening; when I first played the advance tracks for this album – bereft of artwork or even a track list – I was only conscious that here was a marvelous collection of ten brilliantly-chosen songs, exceedingly well sung, arranged, and played. It wasn't until sometime later that I realized the songs were very specifically chosen for a distinct program. Still later, when I spoke again to Kathy, she emphasized repeatedly that this wasn't a "tribute" album (and, even less, a set of imitations).
She needn't have worried – Kathy is such a distinct stylist that no one could possibly accuse her of imitating anyone. A "tribute" collection to Chris Connor, Anita O'Day, June Christy, and Julie London would, by definition, be expected to include their signature songs and hits (respectively, that's "All About Ronnie," "Let Me Off Uptown," "Something Cool," and "Cry Me a River"). But Kathy has done nothing of the sort. She chose her words well when she described the album as a "toast" – it's an acknowledgement of the skills that these four ladies showed in picking songs, a tip of the hat, a bouquet of roses sent by messenger. (In fact, she's probably the only contemporary singer to do "Learnin' the Blues" in reference to Julie London – rather than Frank Sinatra – even though it's a rare song that was recorded both by London and her husband-producer Bobby Troup. Where London's version was silky and breathy, Kathy's is more directly blue – she sings as if she's already learned, to quote a London album title, about the blues.)
Since most of the four icons (all but Connor) were based in Los Angeles (although only London was actually from California), Kathy opted to record the sessions on the West Coast, in collaboration with Los Angeles based arranger-conductor-pianist-musical director and Resonance Records recording artist Tamir Hendelman. Yet in spite of the geographical compatibility, the new tracks hardly sound derivative of the originals: the new "Night Bird" (by saxophonist-arranger Al Cohn and the mysterious "Kitty Malone" – even Al's son, Joe Cohn, has no idea who that is) sounds fittingly nocturnal, with suitably moody harmon-muted trumpet. "November Twilight" (virtually unsung since London's Calendar Girl) is another haunting mood piece with overtones both noir and classical.
Ms. Kosins groups all the ladies in question under the generally vague umbrella of "cool," yet her own singing is hardly cool in the sense of unemotional – "Where are You" is slow and melancholy, with the faintest hint of Brazilian rhythm, but "Kissing Bug" is lively and swinging – even though the subject at hand (infidelity) is the kind of topic more often dealt with in a slow torch song. Trumpeter Gilbert Castellanos engages in some interplay with the singer that suggests the selfsame kissing bug in action. Johnny Mandel's "Hershey Bar," famously recorded wordlessly by O'Day (not to mention Stan Getz), becomes a delicious candy concoction thanks to new lyrics by Kathy.
As the title suggests, "Lullaby in Rhythm" (a Christy favorite, which she recorded on at least three different occasions), is a genre hybrid, which starts as a slow ballad, particularly in the seldom-heard verse, but then kicks into a swinging tempo – the lyrics to the contrary, no one is going to sleep around here. "All I Need Is You" is also upbeat and affirmative, while "Free & Easy" finds Kathy in high spirits, at once relaxed and excited, with a solid four beat generated by guitarist Graham Dechter, who also engages in Shearing Quintet like harmony with Mr. Hendleman.
To The Ladies of Cool is also an amazing toast to an era of music, which, though only 50 to 60 years ago, seems completely removed from the world we know in the 20th Century. It seems hard to believe that songs of the caliber of Henry Mancini's "Free & Easy" and Charles DeForrest's "Don't Wait Up For Me" were actually throwaways. (I've never heard anyone sing the latter except for Connor and the under appreciated Charles DeForrest himself, in person.) Think about an age when great songs were so plentiful that gems such as these could have fallen through the cracks. It's also hard to imagine a period when artists as distinctive as these four ladies were simultaneously jazz singers and pop stars – who not only recorded frequently but headlined in the top venues - a period when no one questioned that such a thing could even be possible. In an age when most so-called jazz singers seem to be doing the same ten songs over and over, Kathy Kosins is opening up a whole new world of possibilities.