On the surface, Karen Mason and Freddy Cole would appear to be polar opposites.
She's ferocious, wringing every drop of drama from every note she sings. He's relaxed, easing his way through ballads and blues with apparent nonchalance.
But both returned to their hometown Thursday night showing at least one musical commonality: They're master interpreters who reshape classic songs to suit particular stylistic needs.
Each time Mason comes back to Chicago, as she did during an early set Thursday evening at Davenport's, she seems to up her intensity level. That doesn't mean Mason sounds louder, faster or tougher than before – just that she seems to drill down ever more deeply into the core meaning of a song.
Though her show, "Secrets of the Ancient Divas," offers a veneer of comic repartee, it's the drama and, sometimes, the tragedy of the repertoire she sings that gives this show – and, really, all of her work – its abiding purpose. Yes, Mason can deliver light comedy with wickedly good timing, but it's the guts and gumption of her art that draw audiences to her.
She established the tenor of the evening from the opening notes, saluting the greatest "ancient diva" of them all, Judy Garland. Surely anyone who reveres mainstream musical traditions associates Garland with "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart," but Mason did not flinch from inevitable comparisons. On the contrary, she plunged fearlessly into this music, taking a medium tempo and lingering on every passing eighth note.
For the song's finale, she slowed down to half time and let loose with the kind of vocal firepower very few contemporary divas can match. Sure, the contenders on "American Idol" can scream aplenty, but Mason produced a depth of sound and brilliance of color that converge in the work of very few singers.
And that was her opening number.
Not that this show was all about tear-it-up climaxes. Mason offered an easy, rolling tempo in "When You're Smiling," soft and silken tones in "He Touched Me" and an uncommonly slow, dreamy version of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," with some of the throatiest low notes in the business.
But when she returned to the music of Garland, the great tragedian of American song, Mason reminded listeners of the depth of her work. Short of Garland herself, who sings "The Man That Got Away" with such fervor? Who conjures so much pain?
This time around, Mason was accompanied by Johnny Rodgers, whose swing-tinged playing brought forth the jazzier side of the singer's sensibility, always a welcome development.
Later in the evening at the Jazz Showcase, Freddy Cole – Nat "King" Cole's kid brother – showed another way into an audience's favor: sublime understatement. You don't have to shake up the room, Cole seemed to be saying, to win a listener's affections. Instead, Cole did so gently, in a manner reminiscent of his sibling's style but with distinctive approaches, as well.
For Freddy Cole's voice always has shown more gravel and grain than his elder brother's velvety instrument. Meanwhile, the pianism of the younger Cole – who's 82 – hardly could be more economical: a few chords here, a countermelody there will suffice, so far as he's concerned.
All of which made for a softly glowing late-night set. When Cole, backed by his quartet, dispatched "Baby Won't You Please Come Home," he proved that an urgent message can be delivered in hushed tones and gentle lines. In Billy Joel's "Just the Way You Are," a tune long beloved by jazz musicians, Cole's elegant phrasing ennobled the original.
That both Cole and Mason offered valentines to Chicago underscored another parallel between them: their roots in a great jazz city. Cole sang about life "On the South Side of Chicago," where "I can still hear Von Freeman blowing." Mason, the queen of the big finish, brought her show to a peak with a rousing mash-up of two anthems, "Chicago" and "My Kind of Town," with special lyrics by her long-gone and deeply missed collaborator, Brian Lasser.
One of these days, somebody ought to get Mason and Cole on the same marquee. Can you imagine?
Karen Mason performs "Secrets of the Ancient Divas" at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; also 8 p.m. June 28, 5 p.m. June 29 and 8 p.m. June 30; at Davenport's, 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave.; $37 plus two-drink minumum; 773-278-1830 or davenportspianobar.com.
The Freddy Cole Quartet plays at 8 and 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4, 8 and 10 p.m. Sunday; at the Jazz Showcase, 806 S. Plymouth Court; $25-$35; 312-360-0234 or jazzshowcase.com.