Denzal Sinclaire and Dee Daniels aren’t father and daughter, and they don’t try to sing “Unforgettable” that way. But they do sing easily together as longtime friends.
The two singers will headline the Milwaukee Symphony’s weekend pops tribute to Nat and Natalie Cole. It’s one of at least half a dozen orchestras with whom they’re doing a version of this concert in 2019, the centennial of Nat King Cole’s birth. He died in 1965, when Natalie was 15, leaving a rich legacy of jazz and pop recordings. But he ascended the charts again in 1991 thanks to Natalie’s “Unforgettable” album that featured an electronically engineered duet with her deceased father.
But in concert, “we’re not trying to be Nat or Natalie,” Daniels said this week, on her way to the airport in Vancouver, B.C., to fly to Milwaukee. “We’re honoring their music. And to do it honestly, we decided to do it from a friendship point of view. We have a lot of fun offstage, and this is a chance to bring it onstage.”
Daniels remembers meeting Sinclaire in the early 2000s when he was performing in Vancouver, “and I was just blown away by his musicality and his voice.” They did a pops concert together a few years later, “and the friendship continued to develop. It feels like family because we’ve known each other for so long. It’s like a mutual admiration society.”
She continued, “Of all the singers I’ve ever heard, Denzal has the most natural Nat Cole-sounding voice.” And does she have a Natalie Cole voice? “I have a 'me' voice,” she said with a laugh, “but I know all the Natalie Cole songs. I grew up with her music.”
“Dee is an exquisite musician and a huge fan of Natalie Cole,” Sinclaire said. “It helps if you love the music, and she’s a great artist in her own right.”
Speaking of his own voice, Sinclaire said, “I used to spend a lot of energy saying that I wasn’t trying to sound like Nat. But it occurred to me, if I was an Italian tenor, people might say I sounded like Pavarotti. It’s just the genre of the crooners from that era.”
In performance, “we’re very spontaneous,” Daniels said. “We try to give everyone a good time, without script. We’re jazz musicians. We live in the moment.” Onstage, the two singers prefer to tell stories through their songs. Most people who come to a Cole concert already know something about their lives, Daniels said, “and if they want deeper details, they can Google it.” For the performers in the moment, “being onstage is a piece of cake,” she said. “When you’re not onstage is when you’re doing the hard work.”
Nat King Cole began his career as a jazz man, first achieving fame as a pianist, but Daniels said, “His voice was so smooth, and he had such an ability to interpret and tell a story, he became known quickly as a singer.” The concerts this weekend will feature a jazz trio accompanying the singers, as well as the full orchestra.
Daniels moved in more or less the opposite direction. “I didn’t start out in jazz,” she said. “That was an evolution for me.” She grew up singing gospel in church, “which was first cousin to the blues,” and also sang rock and pop before being attracted to the improvisatory freedom of jazz. But, she added, “I don’t believe in categorizing. Anything is creative. I’m not a purist. It doesn’t matter to me; it’s all about the story” that the song tells.
“Nat obviously had a strong connection to both” jazz and pop, Sinclaire said. He, too, enjoys performing in many different genres. Thinking aloud, he said his dream concert “would be like a mix tape, or a series of shows. I’d throw in a country-western tune, an Italian aria, some classic rock, some R&B, some blues.”
As well as the three regularly scheduled concerts at Uihlein Hall, Daniels and Sinclaire will do a salon concert in a private home on Thursday. But Daniels said that her approach is the same, whether for 20 people or 2,000. “It’s more intimate in a living room,” she said, “but we try to bring the same kind of intimacy onto a big stage with a full orchestra. It’s our living room, so to speak, and we’re happy to have them there.”