The music world suffered yet another loss when singer Natalie Cole passed away on December 31, 2015. Since her 1975 debut Inseparable, she transformed from an R&B vocalist to pop diva and finally jazz artist. She may have been Nat King Cole's daughter--and clearly drew inspiration from him--but she successfully established a separate identity during her almost 40-year career. Many tributes have focused on Natalie's 1991 album Unforgettable: With Love, her affectionate salute to her legendary father. What few have explored is how her singing style transformed after that LP. Rather than returning to the pop of her 1980s hits "Pink Cadillac" and "Miss You Like Crazy," she continued exploring her jazz roots on subsequent albums. One such example is 2002's Ask A Woman Who Knows, an elegant collection of jazz and pop standards including her sophisticated reading of Michael Franks' "Tell Me All About It."
Natalie began singing at 11 years old, gradually honing her craft until meeting two songwriters/producers who would guide her early career: Chuck Jackson and Marvin Yancy (whom Natalie later married). The duo collaborated with her from 1975 until 1983, scoring R&B hits such as "This Will Be" and "I've Got Love on My Mind." After struggling with drug addiction in the early 1980s, Natalie mounted a comeback by focusing on pop. Her 1987 cover of Bruce Springsteen's "Pink Cadillac" became an unlikely hit, followed by the adult contemporary-friendly ballad "I Live for Your Love." After releasing 1989's Good to Be Back, which spawned the AC hit "I Live for Your Love," Natalie decided to reinvigorate her career by embracing her roots, namely her father's brand of jazz and pop.
Unforgettable: With Love became a huge hit, mainly due to her virtual duet with her father on the title track. While the technology of the time dazzled listeners, it unfairly overshadowed Natalie's performance on standards such as "Paper Moon" and "This Can't Be Love." Her growth as a singer permeates every track, from the moody "Lush Life" to the swing of "Thou Swell." She demonstrated a gift for interpretation and scatting, two elements that rarely appeared in her previous work. After that release, Natalie would almost exclusively devote her talents to jazz and pop, producing some of the best recordings of her career. The 1993 followup Take A Look saw her tackling such standards as "Cry Me A River" and "Let There Be Love" while including her own compositions. By 1999's Snowfall on the Sahara, Natalie had officially established herself as a respected chanteuse who interpreted classic and modern tracks with sensitivity and sophistication (for further proof, listen to the lush rearrangement of D.J. Rogers' "Say You Love Me").
Ask A Woman Who Knows showcases Natalie's maturity as a jazz vocalist, backed by top musicians such as Diana Krall, Joe Sample, Christian McBride, and Roy Hargrove. The beautifully understated arrangements let Natalie's warm, honeyed vocals shine through, particularly on "Tell Me All About It." Written by Michael Franks, who recorded it for his 1983 album Passionfruit, the song originally was written from a male perspective. However, Natalie alters the voice, croons with a wink, revealing her feminine and seductive side. "I've got ways to make you tell me all about it / That's what I'm gonna do," she effortlessly sings, gliding over the melody. Her scatting toward the end of the track is a joy to hear, as she fully indulges in her jazz background and demonstrates how she has mastered the form. The Latin tempo also proves Natalie could wrap her voice around bossa nova rhythms as seamlessly as a swing tune or a pop ballad. Her obvious enjoyment in recording this playful song radiates from the speakers.
Despite struggling with health issues complicated by hepatitis C, Natalie continued to release jazz-inflected albums, her final release being Natalie Cole en Español (2013). Few vocalists possess the versatility that Natalie displayed, and Unforgettable introduced a new generation to her father's timeless music. At the same time, she did not simply imitate Nat King Cole; instead, she applied lessons she learned from him to contemporary sounds, becoming a gifted artist in her own right. Several genres--from R&B to pop and jazz to Latin--will miss Natalie's distinctive and beautiful voice.