Holly Cole talks new album Montreal, concert at El Mocambo

Holly Cole is one of Canada’s most acclaimed jazz vocalists.

She has sold hundreds of thousands of records, toured the world and shared her incredibly unique style with us for more than 30 years.

Cole has a new recording called Montreal, where for the first time in a quarter of a century, she’s back with her original trio featuring bassist David Piltch and pianist Aaron Davis. In celebration, she’s taking to the stage of the El Mocambo for a very special live-streamed concert called Holly Cole: Live From Under the Neon Palms.

Holly Cole joined us to talk about what to expect from the new album and the concert, both available on Friday, April 2.

What has the last year been like for you?

We’re all jonesing to play. I’ll put it that way. I can’t remember the last time we didn’t play for a year. We gig a lot, and when we’re not gigging, we’re in the studio or writing. I guess people have had a lot of time to do other stuff that they wouldn’t normally do. But we’re all really, really eager. We got together the other day and it was so exciting to play again, so we can’t wait to hit the stage and gig again for people.

You moved from the Maritimes to Toronto in 1983. Do you have any memories of the El Mocambo?

I performed there a couple of times and I loved it. Even when I was a kid, it was a legendary place. Getting to play there myself was exciting. Now, it’s different. I hadn’t seen it before, but we went in and the place is amazing. They’ve retained a lot of what I loved about playing there before, respecting the sonic integrity of the place — because it really is a great place to play live — but they’ve made it new and refurbished, too. I thought they did a fantastic job.

There haven’t been a ton of shows there yet. It must be nice to be part of this new era of the El Mocambo.

It’s partly that, and also I think it’s exciting to be doing a concert during the pandemic. Hopefully it’s going to be over soon, but that’s an iconic thing in my mind. It’s a different experience, because there’s no audience. I really love having an audience very, very much, and it influences the show a whole lot, especially because I like playing smaller rooms and letting the audience have a face and a personality. But this is different and I’m trying to approach it in a different way. It’s sort of an opportunity to be in a club but have it be as pristine in sound and as intimate as if you were able to do it in a studio.

It’s sort of a cross between a studio session and a live gig. Does it mean that you’ll be relying on the other musicians to grab some of that energy that you’d usually get from an audience?

Oh yeah, absolutely. But it suits this kind of music, in that it’s minimal and there’s a lot of space. There’s a lot of silence involved. It works out very well for this kind of music.

Let’s talk about Montreal. Why do you think you have such a special relationship with both the city and the Montreal International Jazz Festival?

I just adore it there. It’s my favourite city in the world, and it’s my favourite city to play. They adore jazz, but the city and the people there also have such a strong personality. I really relate to their way of life.

There’s a theatrical part to your performance, and it seems like in some ways, Montrealers really gravitate to that — not just the song, but the performance.

Absolutely. They have a strong love of irony, as well. I do, too. That’s part of the humour of the show and the intensity of the show, and its overall personality.

You did four nights in a row in 2019 and that’s how this album Montreal came to be. It had been 25 years ago since the Holly Cole Trio got together. How special was that run?

It was amazing. During the 30th anniversary of the Montreal International Jazz Festival, it was boiling out. It was four of those hot, humid nights in July in Montreal, and we played at this little place called the Lion d’Or. We were all crammed into this tiny club for four nights. It was the reunion, and it was also with two band members who sat in — Davide DiRenzo and Johnny Johnson — and it was just very special.

Whatever Lola Wants is such an interesting choice. I don’t think I’ve heard another jazz artist take on that tune. What’s your relationship with the song?

I love to research music, and I go to a lot of show tunes to look through [their music]. I found that in a show called Damn Yankees. It was an unsuspecting entry. I loved the innuendo of the whole song.

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What can people expect from your El Mocambo concert?

Well, they’re going to get a great concert. But I’m also going to be live chatting. They can go on Facebook and ask me questions and I’ll answer them.

What about the material? 

It’s going to be some new stuff from the album Montreal, and then a bunch of people’s favourite tunes to hear. I know what people want to hear.

This interview has been edited and condensed.