Published: Wednesday, December 28, 2011, 6:22 AM
By Dawn Veltman | The Muskegon Chronicle
WHITEHALL — ‘String’ in the new year with the George Cole Quintet and an evening of elegant and whimsical jazz.
The San Francisco-based national touring group’s style, dubbed “Eurocana,” is a rich blend of the Great American Songbook and the string-driven swing created by French gypsy-jazz legends Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli in 1930s Paris.
Cole, 50, is the band’s lead vocalist, guitarist, composer and producer. And while the songs and lyrics the group performs are all originals, what comes to mind is the music of Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, the Gershwins, Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz — his heroes.
“It’s like pop music only from another era; it’s very accessible,” explains Cole. “It’s so authentic, what we play will sound as if you’ve heard it before.
“We’re an acoustic string band — very romantic and delicate — but with a sound that has a lot of muscle. Our guitar-driven rhythm, called le pompe or “the pump,” is what gives our music its energy and a twist on the Great American Songbook.”
In addition to Cole, the ensemble features Hale Baskin, vocals; Nancy Kuo, violin; Jimmy Grant, rhythm guitar; and Christopher Bastian, bass.
It wasn’t until about eight years ago that Cole began playing Eurocana-style music. Before than, he had another life, he said, as a rock guitarist. He’s performed with such stars as Chris Isaak, Joe Walsh and Keely Smith, among others.
He’s appeared on Grammy-nominated releases and has won a California Music Award for Best New Major Label Artist.
One of Cole’s claims to fame is having been a mentor to Green Day guitarist Billy Joe Armstrong and bassist Mike Dirnt.
“I’m super proud of them and their tremendous success,” he says.
His turning point came when he saw a performance by Bireli Lagrene, a French guitarist and bassist in the style of Reinhardt. He sold all of his electric guitars, amplifiers and electronic musical gadgets the very next day, he said.
“I grew up in the rock era,” he explains, “but the secret is that I always liked my parents’ music — Bing Crosby, the Andrew Sisters, Peggy Lee, Frank Sinatra. … I was the odd one, and kept it to myself. Now I guess I’m out of the closet and, since I started touring, find that there are many more out there who love this music just like me.
“Truth be told, I never imagined that I’d play this music professionally, but I’ve discovered there is a real interest. And when I began writing and singing the songs, it just came out in the style of my earliest musical influences. I was as surprised as anyone at what I was creating.”
Cole said the quintet is real people playing real instruments in real time.
“And, I think, in this era of so much electronic dance music, people value that. I love the nostalgia we create. There’s something that’s comforting that we do — especially during the holiday season — to see someone really performing and playing live without electronic backup.”
Recordings Cole has produced include “Riverside Drive” released in 2010, “Samois Faire (The Hot Club)” from 2007, and the self-titled “George Cole” released in 2004.
“I have more fun playing this music than anything,” Cole said. “To see the expression on people’s faces, they really get a kick out of the guitar and violin pyrotechnics. It’s fun for us to turn people on to this new-old sound, and do it live.”
“People can look forward to great melodies, swing and, even though they’re originals, they’re (Cole Quintet) very easy to listen to,” said Lazaro Vega of Blue Lake Public Radio. “Guitar players will especially enjoy it as the players can really let it go.”
Cole said that, after two 50-minute sets with one intermission, the group will be on hand in the lobby to meet and greet audience members and sign autographs.
A cash bar will be open before, during and after the concert.
Dawn Veltman is a Chronicle correspondent.